Some vicious realities of mental health challenges locally
The stories of mentally-challenged persons committing horrifying acts of violence against their loved ones or strangers has been well documented in Jamaica, but the issue highlights a further painful reality for the island of over 2.8 million people; we largely fail to adequately deal with mental illness to our own detriment.
Another sad reality is that many Jamaicans are not adept at dealing with mental illness, and are unable to tell the symptoms until the individuals who often show no immediate signs, carry out ghastly acts, which for the most part have involved the use of cutting implements.
In an article entitled, 'Mental illness requires adequate management', which was published on May 21, 2019 in a Jamaican newspaper, Glenn Tucker, an educator and a sociologist, argued that “there is the feeling among many Jamaicans that mental illness is the work of demons, (while) others think it is punishment from God.”
Tucker pointed out that “Family members are not trained to care for a mentally ill person, do not understand the condition, and are just downright scared of the manifestations,” while adding that, “There is a stigma that is attached to the patient, family and friends that has negative implications for employment and relationships.”
Mental illness may be defined as any condition that affects a person's thinking, feeling and behaviour, as well as their social, occupational and other important areas of the functioning.
Some of the major classifications of mental illness include psychotic disorders, for example, schizophrenia spectrum and other psychotic disorders; bipolar and related disorders; depressive disorders; trauma and stressor-related disorders, for example, neurodevelopment disorders.
Among the early warning signs of mental illness is deterioration in appearance, or neglecting grooming or hygiene; sleeping or eating pattern disturbance; and strange speech or behaviour.
Family members often ignore these warning signs, but some cannot be blamed, as many individuals are not properly sensitised about these early signs.
Over the years, mental health professionals have indicated that some families in the past would take their loved ones who had characteristics of being mentally challenged, to the Bellevue Hospital, an East Kingston-based hospital.
Since the advent of psychotropic medications in the 1950s, Jamaica joined the thrust towards de-institutionalising and decentralization of mental health treatment. Hence, Bellevue Hospital is no longer the mainstay of mental healthcare delivery in Jamaica.
Mentally ill persons are now offered care in health centres, and if a relapse should occur, they are admitted to any hospital across the island for treatment. Additionally, the community mental health service also provides home visits and emergency responses on a case by case basis.
Professionals charged with the treatment of persons with mental disorders, generally argue that the “onus is on family to equip themselves with information to enable them to participate in and take responsibility for their care”, according to media reports.
But the crime stories involving mentally-challenged persons in Jamaica often show that relatives neglect the early warning signs, and often blame their loved ones’ acts on “evil or obeah”. In addition, some families are shocked for a lifetime, and have even dismissed the thought of admitting that their loved ones had any mental disorder.
Below are some outlines of actual cases of extreme violence that have reportedly been carried out by person who are believed to have been of unsound mind in Jamaica.
In the case of Romeo Henry, who allegedly killed a two-year-old girl by slashing her throat, and injured another child and an elderly man in the same manner in Barker district, St Mary on Wednesday, April 15 this year, some residents said he had become extremely despondent after being recently laid off his job at a resort due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Other residents blamed the acts of 39-year-old Henry on depression.
His family, on the other hand, said someone had “worked obeah” on him, arguing that he was a quiet individual who was not known to have evil intentions.
Henry, a chef of Barker district near Gayle, was killed by an angry mob in retaliation for the unprovoked attacks on the children, aged two and five, and a 67-year-old man.
Mickayla Cox, a two-year-old resident of a Kingston address, did not survive the attack. She was Henry’s cousin.
Cox, along with her other siblings, had moved to Barker district after their father had reportedly lost his job in Kingston due to the Covid-19 pandemic. He was not at the home on the day when Henry reportedly attacked the children.
According to residents of the rural St Mary community, Henry had been employed as a chef at a hotel on the north coast, but due to the negative impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the tourism industry, he was laid off from the resort.
The residents said since that development, Henry started acting strangely. The police confirmed that they had been told of Henry's behaviour since he was laid off from work.
A day following the grisly attacks, a male resident of the community who asked not to be identified, said Henry had likely fallen into a state of depression.
"Him (Henry) start act some little strange way since him lose him job; talk to himself and sit (down) out a space... Dem little ting deh. Honestly, it seems like a depression lick him, but we nah too pree dem kinda ting say him would get violent because we all live as family here in the area, because is a small community," the resident explained in a then telephone interview.
The Barker resident said on the day in question, at about 4.30 pm, persons were at a shop in the community when Henry approached them with a knife and placed it at the neck of a gentleman who was playing a game of bingo.
"We think a play him (Henry) a play, and then him draw it and a blood we see a come from the man throat. Then di bwoy (Henry) run off. But we never go look for him same time... A later after dat we hear some screaming and noise say him cut a man two granddaughter(s') throat(s)," the resident further explained.
The three injured persons were transported to hospital, where little Mickayla died. The other two persons were admitted for treatment.
But the bloodshed in the community was not over for the day, as an angry mob subsequently apprehended Henry and violently attacked him. He succumbed to his injuries at the scene.
The community was left traumatized and shaken by the incidents.
"As mi say, we never know the youth would ah end up do something like dis. It really hurtful. Never expect this, because he was a good youth; very quiet. We can only assume he was depressed, but we never really take it serious that he would do this," added the resident of the rural St Mary community.
Family members, in a television interview, later ascribed the actions of Henry to the effects of “obeah”.
What was clear, however, was that it was another case of relatives ignoring the warning signs of a man who may have been undergoing some mental disorder, who did not get the necessary help before disaster struck.
Trelawny man kills his mother, nephew
Despite allegedly chopping his father, though not fatally, and attempting to attack him on another occasion, no help seemed to have been sought for 28-year-old Leon Whyte who had clear mental challenges that had escalated.
In May of last year, Whyte chopped to death 56-year-old Jennifer Gordon and her five-year-old grandson, Levon Walker, at their home in Martha Brae, Trelawny.
Whyte, who was reportedly under the care of the Trelawny Health Department but had apparently stop taking his medication, was shot and killed by the police after he reportedly attacked them when they went to investigate the killing of his mother and nephew.
Following the acts, family member detailed how Whyte attacked and chopped his father several times at his residence in Bunkers Hill in the parish. On the day in question, his father had reportedly spoken to him about him slapping a machete on the ground. This infuriated Whyte, who turned on his father and chopped him, family members recounted.
Whyte then went to live with his mother after the incident, but his mental condition appeared to have deteriorated, and sometime before he killed his mother and nephew, he returned to his father’s house and damaged sections of the property when he could not get to attack his father, family members told the media.
Whyte’s elder brother theorised that his brother may have been possessed by demons, which were believed to have led him to kill his mother and nephew, ignoring the fact that Whyte had a mental condition.
Trelawny was also the scene of another attack by a mentally-challenged person in December of 2016. On that occasion, 71-year-old newspaper vendor, Joycelyn Gomez, was attacked and chopped to death in Falmouth by a man of unsound mind. It is alleged that he cornered her and inflicted multiple chop wounds before anyone could come to her rescue. The attacker was taken into custody, but it is not clear how that case has since progressed.
Possibly one of the most egregious acts allegedly committed by a mentally-challenged person in Jamaica over the years was that of security guard, Jeffrey Perry, who stabbed to death his female cousin’s three young children on the night of January 27, 2005 in Killoncholly, St Mary.
Perry at the time was not believed to have had any mental disorder, but at his Court of Appeal hearing in 2012 to quash his death sentence, his attorney told the court that his client had obsessive compulsive disorder. Additionally, the attorney said Perry had impulses and urges which were difficult to control, and this led him to kill the children.
It is, however, unclear if Perry had shown any noticeable signs or warnings of mental disorder prior to him committing the murderous acts.
On that fateful night, Perry climbed through a window and mercilessly stabbed to death 15-year-old Dwayne Davidson and his sisters, 13-year-old Sue-Ann Gordon and four-year-old Shanice Williams while they slept. A fourth child, who was a baby at the time, was unharmed.
So cold were the actions of Perry that when the bodies were found, he reportedly wailed at the scene and questioned who would want to harm the children. He also cried sorrowfully at a candlelight ceremony that was held for them, according to relatives.
Perry later confessed to the murders, indicating that a voice told him to kill them, and led homicide investigators to the spot where he buried the knife that was used in the savage attack.
Perry was convicted of the murders of the three siblings in December of 2008, and was sentenced to the death penalty on January 16, 2009. However, the Court of Appeal quashed the sentence three years later, and instead sentenced Perry to life imprisonment. The Appeal Court also ordered that Perry, who was 38 at the time of the appeal, should serve 45 years behind bars before becoming eligible for parole consideration.
Family members and community members were upset at the decision of the Appeal Court, after hoping that the judges would have allowed the death penalty to remain. Additionally, residents and family members at the time dismissed any suggestion that Perry had any mental issues, and described his actions as “pure evil”, media reports then indicated.
The mother of the murdered children and the sole child that survived the attack have since relocated from the community, due to the pain that was caused by the incident.
The police versus the mentally ill
In attempts to apprehend mentally-challenged persons, the police have at times resorted to wounding them while defending themselves, which has resulted in the deaths of these individuals in some cases.
On December 18 last year, 43-year-old Samuel Brown, who was said to be mentally ill man, was fatally shot after he allegedly stabbed a police officer during a dispute in Lillyfield near Bamboo in St Ann.
Reports are that sometime after 7am, police officers responded to an incident in the area where it was reported that Brown had attacked a relative with a machete. During efforts to apprehend him, Brown reportedly pulled a knife and chased one of the lawmen and stabbed him. The officer responded by taking evasive action and shooting Brown, according to the police.
In a similar incident, a mentally-challenged man was fatally shot after he allegedly attacked police officers in Malvern, St Elizabeth on December 29, 2019.
Reports are that residents alerted the police to the area where 54-year-old Richard Edmond of Malvern was said to be causing a disturbance. On their arrival, the man allegedly used a sharp object to attack the police team, who took evasive action and shot him.
Edmond was later pronounced dead at hospital.
And there have been cases in which citizens and other stakeholder groups have questioned whether the police are adequately trained to deal with persons who are suffering from various mental disorders.
In the aftermath of the incident in which Leon Whyte was shot dead during a confrontation with the police after he fatally chopped his mother and nephew last year, Carol Narcisse, co-founder of mental health support group, ‘Mensana’, said the Jamaica Constabulary Force (JCF) needed to develop policies that could reduce the likelihood of persons with mental health issues being killed when they are in confrontation with law enforcers.
Narcisse, who was speaking in a radio interview, argued that the training of police officers in dealing with persons with mental illness was unacceptable. She added that in most cases, these persons are dead after a confrontation with law enforcers.
The courts and mentally-challenged persons
Each case involving a mentally-challenged person is generally assessed on its own merits when it is brought before the courts to be heard. In some instances, these individuals who suffer from a range of mental disorders are deemed not fit to give a plea to the respective crimes, and alternatives are found. There are other circumstances where these persons are given lighter sentences.
Woman who killed her own baby
On January 10, 2013, a mentally-ill woman, Michelle Stewart of Fort George Road in Annotto Bay, St Mary, walked into the Annotto Bay Police Station and confessed that she had killed her baby at home.
The police went to the house and saw 11-month-old Lyndon Mattison lying on a bed with a large wound to the neck, and a machete beside him.
A post-mortem report that was conducted later revealed that the baby had a chop wound over the left side of the neck and shoulder with severing of the underlying muscles, vessels and airway. There were also chop wounds to the back of the left arm and forearm.
Stewart was taken into custody and following several psychiatric evaluations, she was diagnosed with a disorder of the mind known as schizophrenia.
When her murder case was to get under way in the St Mary Circuit Court on February 23, 2016, just a day prior to its start, she pleaded guilty to the lesser charge of infanticide.
At the time, crown prosecutor, Sasha Marie Smith (now a parish judge), detailed the happenings in Stewart’s life leading up to the killing.
It was stated that in 2006, Stewart and the baby’s father, Lynval Mattison, met and later began a relationship together as a couple in Annotto Bay. On January 15, 2012, Stewart gave birth to baby Lyndon. However, the father of the child reportedly realised that Stewart became unstable and on occasions had to be hospitalised with a mental condition. He noticed too, that whenever she took her medication, she was fine.
It was also revealed in court that Stewart had other children, but they lived with their father.
In a report on the case file from Stewart’s doctor, it was revealed that she had been a patient at the Annotto Bay Hospital receiving psychiatric treatment since 1992. In 1996, she was diagnosed with a psychological-related disorder. Between that time and 2014, she was an outpatient at the psychiatric clinic, and her psychosis was changed to bipolar disorder type 1. The last medical report done on her condition on November 21, 2015, diagnosed her with schizophrenia.
It was also noted that days after the infanticide, Stewart displayed psychotic features, and she admitted to auditory hallucinations telling her to kill herself and her baby. She admitted to symptoms of evasive thoughts for several days, and her last recollection was feeding her baby at 8am on the day of the killing.
On April 28, 2016, Stewart, who was then 42-years-old, was given a three-year suspended sentence by Supreme Court Judge, Justice Carol Lawrence-Beswick. The sentence was given mainly due to Stewart’s mental state at the time she inflicted the chop wounds to her baby.
A supervision order was also attached to Stewart’s sentence to ensure that she has regular psychiatric evaluation and treatment.
Mentally challenged man freed of rape
There was much outrage within society when news broke in February of 2014 that a 69-year-old resident of the St Mary Infirmary was raped by a man. Several outraged persons had questioned how someone could have walked onto compound of the infirmary, located in Port Maria, and rape one of patients in the care of the state.
Following a probe, Asha Lowe of Tryall, near Port Maria, was arrested and charged with rape and indecent assault after he was pointed out on an identification parade on February 28 that same year following the alleged incident on February 9 at the infirmary.
But Lowe was found to have been suffering from mental challenges.
Several psychiatric reports which were ordered by the court over a number of circuit sittings in St Mary, revealed that Lowe was not fit to plea to the charges because of his severe mental condition.
A panel of jurors was selected at a fitness-to-plea hearing on March 16, 2017, which was held ‘in-camera’ because of the nature of the crime. The jury later determined that Lowe was not fit to stand trial in the matter.
On April 4 that same year, High Court Judge, Justice Sarah Thompson-James, reviewed a new psychiatric report and released Lowe into the custody of his caregiver.
The judge ordered that Lowe was to continue his mental treatment, with the probation aftercare officers providing supervision. Lowe was later released of the charges against him.
Meanwhile, mental health professionals have indicated that while family members are impacted emotionally, financially and socially when one of their own suffers from mental disorder, it is important to ensure that their afflicted loved ones keep up their treatment. This is important to avoid relapse, which can lead to them doing harm to others or themselves.
If persons living with mental illnesses are stubborn in taking their medications, family members are advised to find creative means of administering it without their knowledge.
But the relevant authorities also clearly need to play a greater role in sensitising the public about mental health challenges and the warning signs of it, to avoid more tragic situations at the hands of those inflicted with the dreaded health issues.