Mental health issues, if left ignored by parents, could destroy children’s lives and even lead to death as almost was the case with Karen Carrington who migrated with her parents from Trinidad & Tobago to Ottawa in the 1970s.
Diagnosed at an early age with anxiety disorder which is a psychiatric condition that may require medical or psychological treatment, Carrington didn’t get the assistance she desperately needed.
Instead, she was accused of being a spoiled brat and someone who was ungrateful for getting an opportunity to come to Canada.
Being the only Black child in her class didn’t help.
“I just couldn’t get the approval I was looking for, especially from my father,” she told the audience at the Black Health Alliance (BHA) forum last Saturday. “I felt like I didn’t fit in. I just felt fat, ugly and not worthy and loveable.”
At age 16, Carrington survived an attempted suicide.
“My dad told me I was like a marshmallow,” she said. “He figured I was too soft and he told me I should toughen up. There was nothing I could do to get his love and I just cried and lived in fear of him. I hated myself and I didn’t want to live anymore. There was no point because I thought I was useless.”
Jumping from an elementary school rooftop, Carrington was rescued by a passer-by who found her lying unconscious on the ground.
“I woke up in hospital and my father was there,” she said. “I finally thought I had his attention and he was there to save me because he loved me. When I looked up and reached for his hand, his response was, ‘Oh gosh, yuh so stupid. I brought you to this country and yuh jump. Get up and we going home’.”
A nurse nearby, who overheard the exchange, informed the father that his daughter was sick and suffering from mental illness.
“That didn’t matter to him,” said Carrington. “In the presence of the nurse, he said, ‘We don’t get sick and furthermore, we Black.”
After she was released from hospital, Carrington returned home to learn she was grounded for the summer.
“My dad also didn’t want see me with make-up, talking to boys or getting pregnant which is exactly what I did because I thought it would get me out of the hell-hole,” she said.
In 2001, Carrington and her son, who is now 20 years old and has never met his grandfather, came to Toronto to start a new life.
She married, secured a job and gave birth to another son.
While vacationing two years ago with her spouse on their 10th wedding anniversary, Carrington – who said she knew her spouse was cheating on her – found an inappropriate letter to another female in his wallet.
“I thought about the day I jumped, but this time I decided I was going to jump ship out of this marriage,” she said.
Carrington flew back home alone the same day and filed for divorce a few days later.
“I made the decision there and then that I was going to change my life because I had been through too much pain,” she said. “I know I am loveable, good enough and worth something. I saw a therapist and finally got the help I needed.”
This year has been quite satisfying and rewarding for Carrington.
She was the recipient of the Toronto Woman on Fire Single Mother Award and she launched a website on Mother’s Day dedicated to the memory of her mother who succumbed to diabetes four years ago at age 58.
Carrington, who is also a licensed hairstylist and a government employee, also turned 40 a few months ago.
“My life is now in order and not in mental disorder,” she said.
The BHA is a network of community organizations, health professionals and community members working in collaboration to advance the health and well-being of the Black community.
“The conversation about mental health in our community is not an easy one,” said the association’s president Dalon Taylor. “But, by your presence here today, we are expressing a commitment to speak loudly about mental illness in our community, to reduce stigma and better support our community as a whole. It’s important that we open doors to communication and that requires us to be honest.
“Being Black doesn’t make us immune to mental illness. No one, regardless of race, creed, class or colour, is immune to mental illness. The truth is, no matter how we try to hide it or even worse, fail to acknowledge it, mental illness is and has been present in our community for many generations.”
The forum addressed the state of mental health in the community, its impact on individuals living with it and steps to overcome the illness.
“This is a place that the conversation needs to happen so that we can continue it and become more aware of the resources that are available and how to advocate for more resources to support our community,” said Taylor.
In the keynote presentation, Dr. Kwame McKenzie spoke about the difference in duration of untreated psychosis from the period of the first symptoms up to the time someone gets into early intervention services and the devastating impact the long wait has on patients of Caribbean heritage.
“It’s eight months for most people, including those of African origin,” said McKenzie who is the Wellesley Institute’s chief executive officer and the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health’s (CAMH) health equity director. “If you are of Caribbean origin, it’s 16 months and 12 of that is being frightened to see anybody. That is what stigma can do. That 12 months cost lives. That 12 months is when you fracture all the relations with your friends, you get kicked out of school, you end up in the justice system and you get a record and you look for alternatives to the pathway which is going to get you money and friends and that’s when you end up in a gang.
“If we can decrease that 12 months just down to the time that other people have, this three or four months will be doing miracles for people of Caribbean origin with psychosis because that 12 months is a problem.”
Chiropractor Dr. Chris Morgan founded the BHA that seeks to reduce the racial disparity in health outcomes and promote the health and well-being of people from diverse Black communities.
The BHA was instrumental in lobbying for the establishment of TAIBU Community Health Centre in the Malvern community to serve the large and predominantly Black population in the Scarborough riding.
By RON FANFAIR