The Virgin Islands chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness wants St. Croix to know that there is help for the silent and often forgotten collateral victims of mental disease: the family caregivers.
Speaking at a meeting of the Rotary Club of St. Croix Mid-Island, NAMI volunteer Aminah Saleem announced an upcoming class for family members of those suffering from major depression, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and other mental illnesses.
The “Family-to-Family” program teaches strategies and coping mechanisms to help caregivers better care for their loved ones while also maintaining their own well-being.
Saleem, who cares for a family member suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, said she learned many lessons the hard way.
“Do not yell at someone with PTSD,” she stressed. No matter how aggressive they may become, do not engage them, she told the crowd, explaining that’s how things escalate and get out of control.
“When they go off just let them go through it, be quiet, and let them calm down,” she said.
Saleem explained that when the opportunity arose for her to receive training through NAMI to teach this course to others in her position, she jumped at the opportunity so others might have an easier time adjusting to the caregiver role.
“People shouldn’t have to learn by on the job training. They should be able to get some insight without having to go through it,” she said.
The class will give detailed information about various mental diseases and teach caregivers what they should expect to see. It will focus on how to deal with their family member when they have a psychotic break and how to avoid triggers so breakdowns are less frequent.
This last point was key, Saleem emphasized, because mental health treatment on St. Croix is currently almost nonexistent.
“What’s happening in the Virgin Islands is almost criminal,” she told the crowd. “There’s a list that we’re supposed to make in NAMI of all the places you can go for services. Ha! There are none.”
Saleem said that the closure of the psychiatric unit at Juan F. Luis Medical Center was a major blow, both to those suffering from mental illness and to caregivers. She said that when it was open, someone suffering a psychotic break would usually be hospitalized for up to three days, giving caregivers a chance to recover.
Now, she told the crowd, the hospital will only keep them for a few hours, medicate them and send them home.
Sandra Leung, president of the club, asked what could be done to improve conditions on the island.
Saleem replied that advocacy was needed and that those working in the field could use support, singling out the group 10,000 Helpers as a leader in the fight.
She also briefed the club on the status of a consent decree mandating the Virgin Islands government to improve mental health care through the Department of Health.
She said progress was being made by the government, but with all of the issues facing the islands, it wasn’t moving forward as quickly as they would like.
“Things are slow in the Virgin Islands. We have to accept that,” she said. “When you’re a person who needs the services, it’s forever. It doesn’t help that they’re working on it if you’re having a crisis right now.”
Ultimately, Saleem said, the best thing the community can do to help is to be honest about mental illness in their families and remove the stigma around it. She said the taboo around mental illness causes many to ignore the issue and makes it more difficult for those who do realize they’re ill to seek medical attention for fear of being judged.
The “Family-to-Family” program will begin Tuesday, with classes meeting weekly on Tuesdays from 5:30-8 p.m. The course lasts 12-weeks.
To sign up or receive more information, contact Aminah Saleem at (340) 626-8056 or Marla Matthew at (340) 690-5905.