Starting a Dialogue with your Caribbean Family about Mental Health

Starting a Dialogue with your Caribbean Family about Mental Health

By Onicia Muller

When a close relative suffered from mental health issues, it inspired me to come out of the closet and start a dialogue with my family. Growing up I saw my family as educated and progressive, yet somehow handling mental health seemed to be something we failed at. Recently, I roped everyone in an e-mail thread in hopes to encourage us to handle things differently. Here are 9 tips to remember when discussing mental health and other sensitive topics.

Disclaimer: I am not a licensed therapist or mental health professional.

Put on your life vest first

Just like the #MeToo movement, some victims might feel pressure to be “brave” and speak publicly about traumatising life events. However, like a plane going down, always put on your life vest before attempting to help someone else. Talk when everyone feels comfortable. Don’t force yourself to keep a conversation going if you feel unsafe. Just like people can find time to pull up celebrity sex tapes and pirate films, then they can do their own medical research. Emotional labour, trauma, and burnout are real. It’s okay to (temporarily) tap out when you feel overwhelmed.

Use their language and be respectful.

To communicate effectively, everyone needs to be on the same page. Don’t let semantics divide you. As much as possible, try to use each other’s languages and focus on what the other is trying to say versus their tone or limited vocabulary. Try to express yourself using the simplest terms possible. We are all students and teachers; enter the dialogue respectfully.


Focus on facts, not assumptions or emotion.

Yes, they rolled their eyes, sucked their teeth, and sat there with a screw face, however, for the sake of trying to bring about awareness and peace, let’s focus on the facts and actions vs. emotions and attitudes. Give people the benefit of the doubt. Give each other time to digest the information and develop new habits. If you request an apology and receive one that is not 100 per cent to your liking, try to hakuna matata and move on. Remember that we are all afraid and have egos.


Use I-statements and speak only for yourself.

“I feel ____ when you ____ so, I would like you to ____.”

Speaking in generalisations and accusatory statements is easy. Take a breath and try asking questions before firing back a response. Always speak for yourself by using I-statements.

Use technology and take your time

Listening is challenging. Listening when your emotions are high is dang near impossible. Consider having some of the dialogues via e-mail where you can take your time to write out your thoughts without someone interrupting. Or use voice notes so you can replay comments until you understand the speaker’s true intention. Don’t feel compelled to respond right away. If you need a week to think, ask for it.

Respect privacy and boundaries.

If someone is not in the right space to talk, respect that. We can’t all afford a therapist to work out our issues on our own. Still, be mindful who you tell what to; there is a difference between gossiping, venting, and working through an issue. Don’t use technology for blackmail or as a weapon. In fact, deleting old chat logs can be cathartic and aid the healing process. Always use caution when creating group chats and e-mail threads.

This is not a debate, it’s a dialogue.

Just because your cousin is a hot mess in several areas of their life, doesn’t mean you can’t learn. Conceding that someone has a point doesn’t mean you are losing. So, apologise and be gentle. No one is 100 per cent right or wrong. You’re on the same team, #TeamFamily.

Be patient. It’s a marathon not a sprint.

After you’ve chatted intensely, you might feel like everything was anecdotal and no decisions have been made. Maybe you think you’re having the same conversation for the thousandth time. Changing mindsets takes time. Know when to call it a day and then resume the conversation when needed. Also, in between these heavy conversations, try to stay involved with other aspects of their lives. People are more inclined to be vulnerable with those who they have a strong(er) relationship with.

Carry on Friends has a 2-part podcast about demystifying mental wellness in the Caribbean.

Onicia Muller is a St. Maarten writer and comedian currently freezing her buns off in Chicago. A former crime reporter and children’s columnist, she’s found her happy place writing about women in entertainment. In June 2018, she received IGNITE Caribbean’s 30 Under 30 Caribbean American Emerging Leaders and Changemakers award for her work as a cultural influencer.