In this installment of Our Stories, Restaurant Manager Ashleigh Grey shares how she has been defying the odds with mental illness… For many people, Jamaica is pictured as an island paradise – white sandy beaches, a beautiful and vivacious culture, rich and wholesome food, and attractive people. And while that image is not far from the truth, if the lens are focused on the inspirational stories of ordinary Jamaicans, you would find a sharper, richer and truer image of the Jamaican experience… this is Our Stories!

Did you know? According to the Youth Innovation Centre, many Jamaicans are likely to experience some kind of mental health issue during their lifetime. The most commonly diagnosed forms of mental illnesses in Jamaica are depression and schizophrenia. Mental health issues can affect anyone – old or young, rich or poor. Yes! That means people living with mental health may very well be in your family, living next door, teaching your children or that church brother or sister who warmly greets you at every church service. With that being said, sadly, not everyone affected receive treatment due to the stigma attached to mental health.

It is no secret that the social stigma and discrimination associated with mental health can make an already difficult situation worse for our victims. Not to mention the media stereotypes and how the situation is exacerbated by them. Consequently, our mental health victims are forced to delay getting help or treatment and are living every day with the overwhelming obstacles related to this disorder.

Meet Ashleigh Grey – Restaurant Manager

We decided to meet with 23-year old Ashleigh Grey to discuss these obstacles. She is a force to be reckoned with and irrespective of the seemingly improbable, we will witness with Ashleigh’s story below how people can go on to live full and meaningful lives despite being mentally ill.

When did you start experiencing symptoms of mental illness?

This question is tricky because I would not say I experienced symptoms. They were normal for me and became more amplified about (four) 4 years ago then progressively got worst until I got things under control a bit. These symptoms were apparent in anxiety attacks, overthinking, depression, and insomnia.

Is there anything that you have tried or done personally to combat those symptoms?

Something I am not proud of but I used to drink to fall asleep but then that stopped working. My favourite ways of coping include getting tattoos and listening to the rain to help me sleep.

Have you ever been open to seeking professional help or treatment?

I have, I sought professional help when my insomnia worsened and I wouldn’t sleep for days on end. This was when I was officially diagnosed with anxiety and depression and recommended to try CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy).

Let us tap a bit into your studies. May I ask what degree you are pursuing or have pursued?

I attained an honours degree in Human Resource Management with a certificate in Creative Problem Solving.

Congratulations! How has living with the symptoms of anxiety and depression affected you academically?

I like to think of myself as functional based on my body’s circadian rhythm. I am most productive between the hours of 12:00-3:00 AM and this worked well for me in school as I focus better at nights. My brain tends to go 100 miles per hour so it is easier to try and get my body to keep up when I have no distractions.

I am happy that worked out in your favour. Do you believe there is a global stigma associated with mental illness?

Most definitely.

And have you ever witnessed this stigma being extended to residents of Montego Bay or even by extension, Jamaica?

When I first discussed my symptoms with my parents their first response was, ‘do not take pills.’  In my opinion, this would not have solved my problems and they still can’t. However, it is sad to say that they did not fully get the picture until time passed on. They are supportive and provide great grounds for venting especially when I overthink. I had an anxiety attack during a midterm and called my mom to tell her I was going to fail my program and not graduate with my degree. She was quick to reassure me that failing an exam was fine and that she knew I’d do well regardless as I had a GPA with good standing and always did well. Needless to say, I got almost a perfect score on the final.

Wow, great! Help me to understand what it is like living with this stigma?

There are both negatives and positives attached to it. One positive is that it shows people that a mental illness does not limit you or what you can do, normal people experience these struggles and it is fine to go through them. However, when days get rough and you really just need a break people tend to not believe you are struggling because of how strong you generally are.

I can definitely attest to that. How often during the past six months have you felt like your moods, or even your life, were under control?

If I am being honest it’s really random. I generally feel fine as long as I don’t think about it too much but when I do, I feel insufficient. I feel as though I am not doing enough and I should be doing more in order to be successful.

Can you share with me your hopes and dreams for the future?

My hopes and dreams entail owning and operating my own Human Resource Management firm focused on leadership development, hiring, and training as well as strategic HR implementation techniques stemming from needs analysis and problem-solving.

Sounds great. What have you been doing recently to achieve those goals? 

I recently finished my degree and certificate and to be honest I struggled with deciding what to do next. However, I think it is best to take a year to just travel and focus on my job as a Restaurant Manager before diving into hard-core HR work as I still complete some HR functions in my current role.

Lastly Ashleigh, how do you believe myself and others can be a better advocate and friend for you and those struggling with mental illness?

Throughout my program, one of my favourite courses was called Leadership Development. The basics of the course entailed studying and understanding various leadership styles as well as patterns to strengthen your leadership qualities and the qualities of the individuals around you. That is my goal. We can all be leaders in our own right, regardless of our Myers-Briggs type indicator and preferences, we all have something to offer, many people just need help finding what their offering is. Having a mental illness does not limit you nor does it make you disadvantaged. The first step towards anything in life should be acknowledgment. So if you or someone you know may be struggling, acknowledge it. From there, you can decide how best to move forward.

Thank you for entrusting us with your story Ashleigh! We are humbled and gratified in equal measure. Take care and always be proud of yourself.

“Never underestimate the power of dreams and the influence of the human spirit. We are all the same in this notion: The potential for greatness lives within each of us.” – Wilma Rudolph