What is your academic and professional background?
I got a Literature degree at UWI, Mona. While I was in school, I worked as a fashion journalist, then did a public relations internship with Solid Agency, which is an entertainment management company here. I eventually started doing entertainment writing and event planning, which I did for about four years. I missed writing, so I went back to journalism and started work at the Jamaica Observer. I was there from 2009 - 2011, then I went into marketing and advertising, while still doing contract work with the Jamaica Observer until 2013. In January 2013, I started my own consultancy business and I now do consulting in creative industries and communications. Apart from that, I wrote a book, Hard Gal Fi Dead: Musings, Poems, Notes to Self that launched at the end of February, and started a mental health support group.
What is Tsansai?
Tsansai Creative is an umbrella org for my consultancy business and mental health work. That combination works because artistic expression and communication helped me a lot on my own mental health journey. There’s the consultancy as well as the blog, and the blog has offshoots like the mental health support group. My book is the first tangible manifestation of the whole concept. So there’s the book, the mental health support group, and I’m going to be hosting some workshops using the idea of artistic expression and communication to combat mental health soon.
Where did the name Tsansai come from?
The name came about as kind of a joke. I wanted an online name and I wanted it to sound Japanese because I really love Japanese culture and anime and things like that. Then I met a man from Japan while working at Solid Agency. He said I had a big smile and it was bright like sunshine, but because of the accent it sounded like sansai. And I was like “sansai, that’s the name”. Then I put the ‘T’ on it, because I’m Tami, and it would look cooler with a T, so it became Tsansai. Now, based on all the advocacy work I do, it works because I’m shedding light on issues that are usually in the dark.
What inspired you to start working on mental health awareness and advocacy?
Well firstly, I got tired of being called crazy and being stigmatized. I realized that a lot of the backlash and stigma that comes with having a mental health issue is a result of ignorance and lack of awareness. I communicated for a living, and I was good at teaching and writing, so I thought maybe I should use that to let people know that this was not a thing to be ashamed of. So that’s what it developed into, that’s not how it started though.
I started blogging firstly as writing practice, because the only way to be a better writer is to consistently write and read. I needed somewhere to do that, and it needed to be a place where people could see it openly and say “this is bullshit” or “this is great”. So I started a blog. I had no idea what I was doing with it then, but it became my therapy, because that’s what I needed at the time. I didn’t care if anyone tore it to shreds, because it was free therapy for me. So that’s how it started.
Once I started talking about mental health, I noticed I was getting a much stronger response. Some of the responses were terrible, but some people cared about it and they wanted to know more. This was in 2011, so nobody was talking about mental health. It was a huge deal that I was talking about it, and a lot of people who knew me said they had no idea that anything was wrong, and it got them interested in learning more about mental health.
Having experienced it myself, I had the influence and position of authority to be able to share it with people in a relatable way that they could understand.
I didn’t really want to center myself in the conversation, because that would make me the mental health poster girl. But I realized it was a risk worth taking, because if I can contribute to even one person seeing mental illness differently, then I’m doing good work.
I know mental health from so many different angles. I know mental health issues from being a caregiver because my mother and sister have mental illnesses. I’ve had to pull myself out of dark places multiple times, so I know it personally as a patient. So patient, caregiver, personal experience, research, writer. I felt like if I had all this knowledge, I needed to do something with it. The more I did, the more I started getting ideas, and the more I started getting signs that I needed to continue doing it, and the more little windows started to open that were creating opportunities for me to do more of it.
What were your next steps after the blog started taking off?
After the blog, I started writing letters to the editor about mental health issues. If something topical happened in the news, I would respond to it. For example, there was a story here where a bipolar man was killed by a security guard when he was having an episode. He had no weapons or anything, but the security guard claimed self defense. I wrote a letter and said there’s no self defense in that, the man was clearly in the middle of a breakdown. He was an excellent teacher, brilliant writer and great person. That got a huge response, and people were calling me to ask about it and get more of my thoughts.
After that, I started doing more public appearances. I had to represent the Jamaica Mental Health Advocacy Network on a few occasions on radio and TV, and now people see me as the public figure for mental health. No matter what I’m doing, the interview always comes back to my experience with mental health. They say “You just don’t look like you would have an issue” and I’m like “That’s the point! You never know until it’s too late”.
There are people who think depression gets all the spotlight and it’s just a trendy thing, but I think depression will open the door for us to talk about everything else that goes on. Another reason why I think it’s more important to focus on depression is because it’s the only one that has no visible symptoms. For any other mental health issue, it’s clear, and you know what’s going on. You never know when someone is depressed. You cannot know unless they want you to know. So it makes sense for me to focus on the silent killer.
That’s the approach I’ve been taking. It’s been a couple of years, but it’s finally starting to pick up and people are starting to understand the importance of mental health. The government is finally starting to listen to us. So I moved from writing on a blog, to writing in newspapers, to talking on TV, to lobbying the government, to presenting to Caricom representatives. I told them there’s no budget for mental health at all. Mental illness is rampant, so why is there no section in the health budget allocated to handling it?
In Jamaica, we have the only mental health hospital in the entire region. There’s no budget and no plan to improve things. This doesn’t make sense because I’m noticing that in the region, younger people are having more mental health issues, and people are getting suicidal much earlier. So when I did the Caricom presentation, I was explaining to them that the workforce is going to need replenishing. We live in an ageing society where a big percentage of the Jamaican population is old. If all the young people kill themselves now, then there isn’t going to be anyone to work when you need them. If we don’t address this, it will affect productivity, the economy and everything else. If people are unhealthy, nothing will work.
What have been your biggest accomplishments?
I’m glad that people are listening now. It used to be a problem that people didn’t care enough, but over the last couple of years, and it’s unfortunate how this had to happen, but a lot of public figures committed suicide, so the conversation had to begin. It forced us to confront this issue. So that’s no longer a big challenge, because people are aware now.
What have been your biggest challenges?
Mental health is still not a ‘sexy’ subject. People aren’t running to throw their money at it, and people aren’t willing to support it openly. It’s still not as mainstream as it should be. The stigma is still one of the biggest issues, because not only does it stop people from helping, but it also stops persons who need help from going to get it, because they don’t know what will be said about them. There’s also the issue where some think only rich people can afford to have mental health problems. They think they’re too busy with life and they don’t have money for therapy so they can’t bother with it, but the poorer population is more likely to have issues, because they’re more stressed living in a system that’s set up to be unfavourable to them.
How did the support group start?
#itsokayJA came to me as an idea because access to good mental health resources is not widespread. Not a lot of people have it, and when you can access it, it’s very expensive. One place I went to cost J$7,500 per 30 minutes. How are people supposed to afford that?
I needed to find a way to get help without paying money that I didn’t have, so I thought a support group would be a good idea. I just needed to get some people who wanted to give back to come moderate the sessions, so those like me who needed help could finally access it. I talked to a few counsellors and they liked the idea. We now have 7 counsellors and they’re all trained and have their own practice, but they’re very invested in eradicating the stigma and getting people help, because they realize the population has a lot of mental health issues but can’t afford regular therapy. So they’re voluntarily helping out with this.
What vision do you have for the future of mental health in the Caribbean?
I want to get to a place where the support groups happen in every parish on the island. I would like it to happen regionally as well. I want it to happen in schools. I want it to be that throughout the region, we’re having very open conversations about mental health. Government health plans right now cover pretty much everything except for mental health. I want it to be at the forefront, because if you have a healthy body but your mind isn’t okay, then you basically don’t have a body. I want mental health to be a priority for governments.
I want teachers to be trained to detect when a student is having a mental health issue, and intercept. A lot of these issues start in childhood and go unnoticed or inaccurately labelled by the people who interact with children the most, like teachers. By the time they find out, it’s very advanced. I want mental health care to become ingrained in the education system and the healthcare system.
I would also like to see companies become more understanding of it. For something like mental health that’s not a visible illness, you should still be able to get time off for it. I’d love to see that, because a lot of people who need mental health days are afraid to go to their boss and say that, so they make something else up. You should be able to get a day off for mental health issues if you need it.
I want to pool together all the people who care and are interested. I feel like if we have a unified body of people, rather than just me throwing rocks at someone’s window, it will definitely work. If lots of people were badgering the government, then I think more changes could happen.
At first I didn’t think I could make any difference, but even though I’m just one person, I’ve still created a stir here in Jamaica. If I can get 20 more people like me across the Caribbean, imagine what we can do regionally.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to solve a big problem in their country?
Just start. Start with what you have. Start with whatever you can do, just do something. Doing anything is better than doing nothing at all. If you think you can’t make a difference, you can, no matter how small you are...because I made a difference and I didn’t even think I was going to. You know how annoying mosquitoes are? Look how tiny they are. If there’s a mosquito in a room, you have to know, because they’re making the most noise, in your eyes, biting you, doing everything. So be a mosquito is my advice. One mosquito can wipe out an entire population.
Where can people go to learn more about you and Tsansai?
On social media I talk about mental health, self-study and self-care a lot, which I refer to as #mindbeingwellness, particularly on Instagram. Feel free to reach out to me for referrals, advice or anything at all. I also discuss my personal journey and the lessons I’ve gleaned in my book, which people everywhere can buy on Amazon and Kindle, or at Bookophilia in Kingston, Jamaica.
Follow Tami’s work and journey here: