From a tearful Dwayne Seymour recounting the shame he felt as the son of a drug-addicted father to a vibrant and determined young woman discussing her battle with depression, those attending a mental health symposium Saturday saw not only the pain of mental illness but heard about the hope of helping more people affected by it.
A standing-room-only crowd of about 250 people packed a ballroom at the Grand Cayman Marriott Beach Resort for the Alex Panton Foundation Launch Symposium.
A slate of speakers at the afternoon event included Abby Hydes, 22, who talked about recovering from depression. Others addressed the state of mental health – particularly among young people – and efforts to meet the needs of Cayman Islands residents with mental illness.
Alex Panton took his own life in 2010 at age 16. The foundation, headed by his parents, Jane and Wayne, aims to raise awareness about mental illness and to serve as a clearinghouse for support services in the Cayman Islands.
“The reason for the foundation is to be a central repository to provide the tools for (children) to become healthy and happy citizens of the world,” Mrs. Panton told the audience. “I hope this foundation can be a beacon of hope.”
Mental health organizations such as Loud Silent Voices, the Family Resource Centre and the Wellness Centre were on hand with informational tables set up outside the ballroom.
Wellness Centre director Shannon Seymour was one of the symposium speakers. Like many of those addressing the crowd, she said early intervention is important. She is hoping the foundation can make a difference in that respect.
“Their objective is to raise awareness [and] bring about changes in policy,” Ms. Seymour said. “It’s going to make it much easier for family members and individuals to get the help they need.”
That in turn, she said, “makes our job easier when people come in at the early stages of their illness.”
Raising awareness is one way to fight the taboos and diminish the stigma that mental illness often carries with it. Ms. Seymour said that stigma cuts across all cultures.
“In the Cayman culture, there’s always been a great sense of privacy, taking our mentally ill people and keeping them out of sight,” she said. Other cultures have their own stigmas, she added, using expatriate British people as an example. “They have that stiff upper lip – be strong and carry on. I think, regardless of where we come from, there is that stigma.”
Pamella Williams is a registered nurse in mental health at Cayman Islands Hospital and part of Loud Silent Voices. She said education is critical.
“In my experience, a lot of families come in and they don’t really understand what’s happening with their child,” Ms. Williams said. “It isn’t like a laceration. They can’t see blood flowing. We teach people how to identify triggers, early signs of mental illness or even suicidal ideations. If families recognize this, they can get help earlier.”
Dr. Marc Lockhart, speaking to attendees, also stressed early identification and early treatment. He said 50 percent of people with mental illness exhibit symptoms by the time they are 14. He said the foundation is looking at establishing a team of health providers who can respond when a young person shows signs of having a problem.
“What we are proposing is we can have teams go to the schools … go to the households,” Dr. Lockhart said.
Such a team might have been helpful to Ms. Hydes, who said she felt the first grip of depression when she was 14.
“I felt like I was a side character in my own life film,” she said.
Two years later, when her mother found her crying, she shared what she was struggling with.
“I said, ‘I don’t know how to deal with these thoughts that I don’t want to be here anymore,’” Ms. Hydes recalled.
Her family got her professional help. But it was not until after she graduated college and was a year into her public relations career that she realized she needed medication to correct chemical imbalances in her brain.
Now, she said, she is in recovery.
“I’m flawed and broken, but not a write off,” she told the symposium crowd, which gave her a standing ovation. “I am proof that you can make your own tomorrow. We will make a positive change in the lives of those with mental illness.”