West Indian/Indo-Caribbean cultural Topics
What does West Indian refer to?
As a geographic region, the term "West Indies" has been used to refer to a sub-region of North America - surrounded by the North Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. This region is largely composed of countries and territories in the Greater Antilles, Lesser Antilles, and Lucayan Archipelago. Some countries included in this region include Cayman Islands, Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Aruba, Antigua and Barbuda, Saint Martin, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Virgin Islands, Grenada, Saint Lucia, Barbados, Bahamas, and Trinidad and Tobago.
However, some countries that are geographically part of South America are often included in topics of the West Indies, such as Guyana, Suriname, and French Guiana.
What does Indo-Caribbean mean?
Indo-Caribbean (or Indian-Caribbean) can describe descendants of "jahaji" Indian workers who were indentured by the British, Dutch, and French to work on sugarcane plantations. Many of these descendants have roots in Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Suriname, and Jamaica. The term "jahajhi" or "jahaji" can be translated into "people of ship" or "people coming via ship."
Mental Health Considerations
For persons who identify as West Indian or Indo-Caribbean, hyphenated identities and transgenerational trauma (or intergenerational trauma) are important to discuss. These are traumas experienced by one generation that ultimately affect later generations. Examples of these traumas include leaving one’s country to start a new life in another, suicide, substance abuse (alcoholism), gender-based violence, poverty, racism, colorism, etc.
First-generation West Indian Americans are raised with a unique intersectionality between two cultures. For the West Indian side, the pervasive effects of migration, poverty, interpersonal violence, suicide, and alcoholism typically get swept under the rug due to cultural stigma. Yet for the American side (or new country of origin), there is typically more access to quality mental health resources and increasingly normalization of mental health issues.
Starting in the 1800s, workers arrived from India - some reportedly tricked and some seeking a new life in a new land. Not long after in the 1900s after indentured servitude was abolished, descendants then again traveled to new lands. With each move, there can be separation from family, support systems, cultural support, established careers, generational wealth, and feelings of safety/security.
Based on a report from the World Health Organization, “Guyana is the country with the highest estimated suicide rate for 2012 globally, and Suriname has the sixth-highest.” Crisis reporters spoke with those affected by suicide and illuminate key factors for the high rates of suicide in Guyana: “poverty, pervasive stigma about mental illness, access to lethal chemicals, alcohol misuse, interpersonal violence, family dysfunction and insufficient mental health resources.”
Alcohol is (typically) heavily present in West Indian/Indo-Caribbean homes. Many cultural events or norms involve alcohol like "limin'" or Carnival. While not all alcohol consumption is or leads to substance abuse, there is concern when alcohol is used as a coping mechanism. Coping skills can be passed down through generations, and without proper care there may be intergenerational trauma that can be perpetuated if not addressed.
Of the five countries surveyed (Grenada, Guyana, Jamaica, Suriname and Trinidad and Tobago), about 30% of respondents in each country endorsed experiencing physical and/or sexual violence. Gender-based violence focused on violence against women as this particular issue is very present in these countries. Witnessing and experiencing this violence can have long-term effects, not only mentally but also physically.
Though there are economic differences amongst the countries in this region, poverty often affects many families. With much history in indentured servitude, earning livable wages are often a struggle. It sometimes a motivating factor for many to migrate to other countries for better educational and economic opportunities. Adding to this is a concern for major gap in pay between men and women.
Racism and Colorism
Throughout its history, people of Indian origin were not the only ones to call the West Indies their home. Many persons of African and Chinese origin also migrated or were brought as indentured workers to this area. Not only were there issues between different races, there is also a very present issue of colorism within the community where "light-skinned" or persons with "fair" skin tone are treated more favorably or admired. As a result, there are often concerns for body image or self-confidence.
It is important to understand that one's culture (or cultures) can have profound effects on how we see and interact with the world. Having a therapist who can understand or explore these nuances with you can be very powerful and helpful.
Check back for more information coming soon!