Fri | Jun 2, 2023

Psychotherapist urges men to take mental wellness seriously

Published:Wednesday | May 11, 2022 | 12:05 AMTamara Bailey/Gleaner Writer

Former member of the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) and cognitive behaviour psychotherapist in London, England, Ontonio Dawson, is seeking to create mentorship programmes across the island, particularly for men, with the hope of destigmatising mental illness and taking a proactive approach to stemming the associated social ills.

Having witnessed first-hand the magnitude of the mental health issues that manifested while on duty as a cop in Montego Bay more than six years ago, Dawson said it prompted him to pursue a degree in psychology at The University of the West Indies.

“When I saw the persons there and how they operated on the streets, it peaked my curiosity, because I wanted to know what led people to being there and doing what they were. I was also part of the anti-scamming campaign, and one of the things I recognised was that what we need is a simple intervention and not a complex approach, where we have people solve their problems in a more effective way,” he said.

As someone who grew up poor in Trelawny and suffered many hardships, Dawson said he, too, could have given in to the pressure of distorted thinking and criminal activity, but he found a way out.

“Thoughts, feelings and behaviour all connect, and if you are always having distressful thoughts, it’s easier for you to feel angry and act upon them. There is culture of distorted thinking and people normalise this thinking, especially among our young people, and if more is not done, the culture of crime is going to continue … . When people are in distress, they don’t have the skills to problem-solve or challenge their thinking,” he said.


It is for this reason, subsequent to his advanced studies in low- and high-intensity therapy in London, England, that Dawson started the Speak Black Man Movement to help black men struggling with their mental health, by educating them on managing issues using different tools and maintaining mental wellness.

“When mental health becomes an everyday conversation, it becomes easier for people to really reach out for help when they become quite distressed; and since we have been doing this, we have been having a lot of people reaching out,” the ex-police-turned-psychotherapist suggested.

According to Dawson, who has worked with the National Health Service in London as a psychological therapist, black men are 10 times more likely to experience psychosis than white men in the UK. He added that black people are 40 per cent more likely to enter psychological therapy through a police or criminal justice route - which means after an issue has been escalated.

The latter, he indicated, continues to be a sad reality for Jamaicans who fail to seek early intervention.

“It is extremely heartbreaking when I read the news and see high-school students being killed in Jamaica. I strongly believe that mental illness plays a significant role in the increasing crime and violence we see in Jamaica…”

Dawson is calling on the Government to utilise the skills of those who have studied psychology at the undergraduate level, to offer low-intensity therapy as a preventive method to maintaining mental wellness among the population.

“These people could be assigned in each parish - to a hospital, schools and health centres - having learnt these skills, so that low-intensity therapy can be a good place to start. If people are able to manage mild to moderate levels of stress, then complex issues may be prevented,” he urged.

With no definite figure available for the number of persons in the island who suffer from mental illness, president of the Jamaica Psychiatric Association, Senator Dr Saphire Longmore, said there remains a need for enhanced community healthcare teams in the community approach to treating mental illnesses.

According to the findings of a study completed by Longmore, over 40,000 adults were seen in public mental health clinics across Jamaica in 2019 and 2020, though the patient-to-staff ratio remains far from ideal.

“When you have a situation where you are supposed to have eight psychologists in a region and you only have one or two, when you are supposed to have 40 social workers and you only have eight or 10… we keep throwing a lot of money at the results, and the consequences of mental illness and lack of mental wellness in the society, and it manifests as crime and violence. When we talk about preventative medicine, it is not just in terms of physical illness,” the psychiatrist argued.

A multipronged approach which prevents the escalation of a matter that can result in the penalisation or incarceration of an individual, should remain the main focus, said Longmore.

“I am pushing mental wellness. We need to stop attaching mental health to mental illness; and change the paradigm to recognising the objective of accomplishing mental wellness of the population, rather than treating mental illness. Promoting mental wellness and the actions and activities that enable mental wellness is actually treating mental illness,” she urged.

In addition to promoting the value of family as a social institution, Longmore suggested that meaningful engagement in promoting happy hormones through recreational activities, as was indicated by Minister of Health Dr Christopher Tufton in his recent Sectoral Debate, goes a far way in improving and promoting mental wellness.

Having also recognised this need, Dawson said he wants to take his initiative of promoting mental wellness to homes and schools.

“I would love to partner with the JCF Community Safety and Security (Branch) for a conference. I am alreaWdy in dialogue with some high schools with regard to us doing mentorship programmes. I am a past student of Holmwood Technical and I have already been in dialogue with them as well,” he revealed. “The idea is not for me to be the only one driving these initiatives, and (so) I have been in dialogue with people across Jamaica with a similar passion, who will be helping to drive the vision,” he added.