Shadwan’s community failed him. Where are the social safety nets to catch our at-risk children? What services does the Ministry of Health provide to mentally ill children and youth?
“Our friend died way too soon”, said Father Andrew Kirschman at the St. Peter Claver Roman Catholic Church in Punta Gorda Town. Father Kirschman was eulogizing 19-year-old Shadwan James Guzman on Friday, January 24, 2020.
Shadwan was born on November 7, 2000, to mother Arlet Casimiro and father Clifton Guzman. He was the eldest of Ms. Casimiro’s four sons: 19-year-old Shadwan, 16-year-old Clifton, 8-year-old John Obama and almost 2-year-old Francis. Ms. Casimiro is a single mother raising her four sons.
Shadwan, after approximately seven attempts, committed suicide on Saturday, January 18, 2020. On a humid afternoon, Shadwan hung himself on a mango tree located in an empty lot on Jose Maria Nuñez Street. Shadwan carried out his final act on the street adjacent to West Street where he lived. Friends say that “moments before it happened,” they saw him walking on Front Street.
At approximately 2:00 p.m., Shadwan’s body was seen hanging from a limb on a mango tree. The Belize Police Department was called and two female BPD officers were dispatched to the scene. They walked to the scene. It appears there was no sense of urgency receiving a call of a possible suicide.
Allegedly, when they arrived, the BPD officers saw Shadwan hanging from the tree and did nothing. They did not cordon off the two ends of the street which allowed people access to this disturbing and terrifying scene.
In this age of social media, people took pictures and videos of this macabre sight. It is alleged that when the law enforcement officers first arrived, Shadwan was still alive. Shadwan’s neighbor cut down the limb on which his body hung. In death, the BPD officers who are sworn to work “…in partnership with all communities to help prevent and reduce crime, and to enhance the quality of life for a safer Belize”, failed to provide this service to Shadwan.
Shadwan’s mother chronicles her son’s spiraling mental health journey. During his primary school years, Shadwan did well academically and displayed no dysfunctional behaviors at home or school. Ms. Casimiro characterizes her son as, “a quiet and bright child”.
Things started to change during Shadwan’s high school years at Toledo Community College (TCC) He began to present with acting out and aggressive behavior.s towards the TCC teachers and staff. At home, his prime target was his mother, at whom he would hurl obscenities and become aggressive. Shadwan was labeled “crazy” by the TCC staff and the community.
Ms. Casimiro stated, “…all I wanted was to get some help for Shadwan”. He had started telling her that he heard voices telling him things. And he asked his mother if she didn’t hear the voices.
At sixteen years, Shadwan was diagnosed with schizophrenia by a female mental health staff at the Punta Gorda Town Polyclinic. Ms. Casimiro enrolled him in counseling and she informed he was prescribed medication by a counselor who told her that the medication was “to keep him calm.”
Typical of the mentally ill, Shadwan resisted complying with counseling and medication. He complained the medication made him feel bad. His mother would put it in his drink. Shadwan also smoked marijuana and his mother alleged that when he smoked marijuana, it would exacerbate his condition and trigger an episode of aggression towards his siblings and herself.
Ms. Casimiro reported she would not call the Belize Police Department for help because when the BPD intervened, they would hurt, not help.
On many occasions, the neighbors called the BPD because of Shadwan’s aggressive behavior towards her. On one occasions, Shadwan was throwing rocks at her as she hid in the outdoor toilet. When the BPD came he refused their orders to stop and they pointed their weapons at him. She begged them not to shoot her son.
Ms. Casimiro informed that during the time he received counseling services, there was no consistency or continuity by the mental health staff, and Shadwan resisted. During his counseling tenure, he was assigned three different social workers. The first social worker left. The second appeared to work well with Shadwan; but she was transferred to a new assignment. Shadwan’s mother stated that he got along well with the second social worker and she appeared to want to help him. Shadwan did not like the third social worker. Ms. Casimiro astutely observed, “… you know something, Miss, social workers like to deal with easy clients but not with challenging ones. And Shadwan was a challenging one because he challenged me. I worked hard with him and spent many nights not sleeping to keep up with him. Late at night he would come to my bed and just stand over me and look at me. He would also leave the house and just run and I would run after him to make sure he was safe and didn’t get in trouble”.
Shadwan’s classmates at the St. Peter Claver Extension, where he completed his high school equivalency, characterize him as”cool”, “funny”, and smart”. One friend noted, “All he needed was the support”. Indeed, all he needed was support.In life and in death I would posit that Shadwan’s community failed him.
Shadwan dared to dream. He wanted to attend the University of Belize. And thereafter go to the US. He loved playing ball at the nearby basketball court in his NiHi/Hollywood community. But Shadwan did not own basketball tennis shoes to play on the basketball court.
He appeared to cope with mental health issues by feeling despair, frustration, shame; consequently, falling into depression.
Shadwan is not an exception. Unfortunately, in Punta Gorda there are many, too many, youths like Shadwan struggling with mental illness. From my vantage point, I believe Punta Gorda is a microcosm of the country.
There but for the grace of God, go I. We are all Shadwan. We are our brother’s/sister’s keepers. We should embody, “He ain’t heavy, he’s my brother” and help each other. In life, no one gave Shadwan a pair of shoes to walk his walk. In death, contributions generously flowed. If only in life Shadwan was honored and respected as he was in death, maybe he would still be here with us.
As Maya Angelou says, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” As Belizeans we know better and we can do better. In the past, we had a true village raising our children. It appears that village no longer exists. I call upon all Belizeans to love, be more attentive, embrace, and touch the lives of our children, like Shadwan, in a profound way.
We need to touch the lives of our children because they are truly our future. We need to ensure that all children are provided with the solid academic, cultural, emotional, psychological, social and technical foundation it takes to develop youths into productive members of society. And if we do not, we are all doomed.
What safety nets are in place to catch and save children who share a similar life experience as Shadwan’s? I call upon the powers that be at the Ministry of Health to comply with their mission and provide efficient mental health services to children and youth. Shadwan’s community failed him. Let’s make sure no other child shares Shadwan’s tragic fate.
The struggle continues.