Cayman community opens up about youth mental health

Alex Panton Foundation tackles stigma head on

In high school, Jada Ramoon considered herself a social, active person. She enjoyed interacting with friends, writing and running track.

So it surprised her when, one day, as she was leaving a final exam, her body broke out in cold sweats. At age 17, nothing like this had happened to her before.

“I didn’t know what was going on with me, so I ignored it,” said Ms. Ramoon, now 20.

“Later that night, I woke to feeling like somebody was sitting on my chest, like, I cannot breathe.”

She woke her mother and they rushed to the hospital to figure out what was wrong.

After running several tests, her doctors finally came to a conclusion: Ms. Ramoon was suffering from anxiety.

As a teen who had always been high functioning and high achieving, the initial diagnosis was difficult to process at first for Ms. Ramoon, a native of Bodden Town.

Her stress became constant, at times provoking anxiety attacks. And she worried about the stress her anxiety was putting on her family.

“I became depressed about it. I beat myself up, like, ‘Why can’t I just be normal?’” she said.

“I was fine for 17 years of my life and then out of nowhere, I feel like I don’t want to get out of bed, I don’t want to eat, I don’t even run track anymore and track was my life when I was in high school.”

Connecting with young people like Ms. Ramoon has been a major goal of the Alex Panton Foundation during its first year of operation.

By promoting community awareness and encouraging conversation, the foundation’s team hopes to reduce stigma and let young people know they aren’t abnormal and they aren’t alone, explained foundation chair Jane Panton.

“We have been focusing on elevating the community awareness of mental illness and how they can be sensitized to and treat people that are affected. We aim to have the community understand that mental illness is an illness that can be treated like a physical illness and chances of full recovery increase the earlier treatment is sought,” Mrs. Panton said.

“We feel that going full throttle at breaking the stigma surrounding mental illness helps young people feel more comfortable about reaching out to others to talk about their internal struggles and get treatment.”

One of the first steps to addressing stigma has been opening up the conversation about mental health. Throughout September, recognized in the mental health community as Recovery Month, the foundation worked with the Ministry of Home Affairs to offer a series of presentations in districts across Grand Cayman on self harm and suicidal ideation.

The idea is to get the message about mental health and recovery directly to the community.

Mrs. Panton understands better than most how important these conversations are. She lost her own son, Alex, at age 16 to suicide.

Now, with a community of support behind her, she hopes the foundation that bears his name will help other families affected by teen depression.

“The key message I would like to get out to the community as a parent [is] seek help and get yourself educated on how to respond to your young child who is exhibiting signs of anxiety and depression,” she said.

“The parenting that worked for you as a young child does not necessarily work for your child. Speak to them in a positive and non-negative manner at all times and do not make judgments when they open up to you. Listen and show you really care about how they are feeling.”

While parents of teenagers know the frequent difficulty of getting them to open up, clinical psychologist Erica Lam, of the Wellness Centre, knows how important they can be in supporting young people through illness.

“Lots of time parents think, ‘the child needs to go to therapy, so I drop them off and pick them up and then they are going to be cured,’” she said.

“That’s very often not the case.”

Just like recovering from a physical illness, mental health recovery requires staying honest to a doctor-recommended treatment plan. While a good clinician will establish clear goals and an evidence-based strategy to treat each client, the legwork must be done outside of the therapist’s office.

“A lot of times, young people can’t do that on their own. They need the school, parents, friends and family around them to shift that, the same way with adults,” she said.

“If you go to the doctor, you will feel better, but only if you follow through with the treatment plan.”

Parental figures may need to help shift the dynamic in the young person’s life, she added. “Be that mental health champion. Don’t be afraid,” she said.

For Ms. Ramoon, in fact, support from her parents was vital. Rather than pushing them out, she invited them in.

“Sometimes they are the best ones who can help you through all the problems you’re going through. My parents did help me a lot,” she said. While anxiety still creeps up on her, she feels that following through with a treatment plan, including counseling, helped her become a stronger person.

When anxiety starts to come on, she now has tools to turn to. She knows to pause, take a walk and breathe.

“I feel amazing. Being in school, studying literature, it’s what I love to do, so I don’t feel the stress from it. And I have my friends and my family; they are always supporting me,” she said.

Just this month, she won the Cayman Islands Imperial Beauties Scholarship Pageant. With the scholarship she earned, she hopes to study journalism – writing is another activity that relaxes her.

“Doing my pageants and speech competitions, essay competitions, this has helped tremendously, so I feel like I am doing amazing,” she said.

Ms. Ramoon plans to use her platform to raise awareness about anxiety and depression among young people.

Now active with the Alex Panton Foundation, she finds herself in good company for promoting that platform.

While Recovery Month is winding down, the work of the foundation is just gearing up. The organization is now working on organizing further outreach events geared at churches, schools and other community gathering places.

The foundation is also actively working toward other goals, such as establishing community outreach services and a helpline. A second Youth Mental Health Symposium is in the works as well, slated for Feb. 9, 2019 – one day before Alex’s birthday.

“There is hope for full recovery,” Mrs. Panton said.

“There is always light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve seen quite a few success stories in this journey since the launch of the foundation in February 2018. Reach out to someone you can trust to talk about your internal struggles. Talking about your internal pain is the first step to healing.”