IYD 2014: ‘Mental Health Matters’
Mental health and mental illnesses were in the long time stories our grandparents told us, but these stories were often used to describe or speak of bad ancestors. I also remember when visiting New Amsterdam as a child, any misbehaviour was accompanied by the empty threat of being placed in ‘mad house’, as though ghosts were the residents. I did not know the correct name of the hospital until I grew up.
Today while it is not so bad, mental health issues are still considered deep secrets, that are whispered under the covers and silently spoken in the darkest corners. The stigma and cultural behaviour attached to mental illness definitely can and should be left in the 20th century. There are some measures in place to accomplish this, but they will be of no use with such stigma attached. For instance, nurses are being trained in psychiatric medicine and will be placed at all community health centers in Guyana, to diagnose and treat mental illness based on their observations. Now, if one lives in a community with negative social attitudes, peer group norms, or other socio-cultural factors that deride mental health, that person will not seek help. They will not go to the community centre, nor accept or allow treatment of any sort.
This stigma does not discriminate based on education. Recalling my time at the University of Guyana, Turkeyen Campus, some students were not aware that the University even had a guidance counselor. Those who were aware would not go for counseling when they needed it either. Leaving aside the partially opened office, students preferred to talk to their lecturers than be seen existing the counselor’s office.
Generally, students and adolescents are at risk. I remember my peers in high school who suffered from eating disorders, that ‘abnormal’ feeling, social anxiety, bullying, aggression and Mahendra would have mentioned some others in his article.
One of my biggest shocks in 2013 was listening to adolescents discuss suicide in Region 1. I read about cases prior, particularly in Regions 2 and 6, but that firsthand experience was a big stump. A boy averaging age 12 conveyed the story of his 9 year-old sister who attempted to commit suicide. Then another adolescent spoke about a six year-old boy who attempted also. I stood there bewildered, trying to understand how someone who just arrived in the world could think of leaving. How did they even learn about taking their life? How do these thoughts enter the mind of a child? With a million unanswered questions, the stories started to unveil themselves. The children, who have attempted suicide, live in homes with abusive parents, be it physical or psychological and, notably, in most cases their parents were alcoholics or they lived in a single parent family. Clearly their parents are facing hardships, but this is of course no excuse for the way they treat their children.
A study done a few years ago by UNICEF, MLHSS and Red Thread showed ‘approximately 4000 children and adolescents (age 3-17) were experiencing all kinds of violence, be it at school, home or the community’. I really hope this figure has decreased over the years, particularly since the Child Care Protection Agency is active.
Further, the study revealed that ‘between 15% and 40% of children (depending on location) reported knowing an adult who had committed suicide and 0% to 32% reporting knowing a child who committed suicide’. (That’s how the idea trickled down!!)
I am immensely thankful for the inspirational people in my life; but I felt the pain of those children, and saw the bubble they live in, which seems so tough that it may not burst. It seems many go along with the trend where girls go to school until a certain age then drop out and start a family. The situation is similar for the boys who also drop out at some point and join the miners in the field. (NB. this is not in all circumstances). Generally, the environment in the communities that I visited in Region 1 was not conducive for the healthy development of adolescents. The social problems are grave and embedded.
Around Guyana, there have already been a number of reported suicide cases for this year, the latest victim being the 24 year-old Lindener. One story for this year that shook me was that of the 19 year-old who was tortured and beaten in police custody in May. He was in custody for loitering and robbery allegations. What particularly caught my attention was when relatives of the teenagers said he suffered from depression and would “go and come every now and then”. It signals to me that relatives did not take this ‘go and come’ seriously, or knew whether he was being treated for this illness. Moreover, the question is whether any young adult is taken seriously as it relates to mental health.
We are all differently made. This is often misunderstood by adolescents particularly when they are trying to ‘fit in’ and be ‘normal’.
The factors here though are coping mechanisms and teaching life skills to children and parents. Specifically for young adults; self-development, tools for empowerment, the building of social emotional competencies and leadership skills would be helpful. These recommendations came directly from the adolescents interviewed during the National Youth Policy consultations.
There was once a hotline number for suicide and telephone counseling, I cannot say they still exist. I also recall the mention of a National Anti-Suicide Strategy, I do not know if that is in the pipes as well or if the National Health Plan that is being drafted will propose something new. However, these situations serve as my motivation and contribution to the Interim National Youth Council and the National Youth Policy.
One thing I did learn from my criminal law course was the British recognition of mental health issues which are not defenses but are conditions for diminished responsibility, like Battered women syndrome, Post traumatic stress syndrome, Depression, Post-natal depression and Premenstrual tension, Othello syndrome, Paranoid psychosis. These are just example of how deep mental illnesses affect us, in circumstances more than we understand. Mental illness should not be ignored!
A single day off from work or our daily schedule can make a significant difference, so take some ‘me time’ once in a while, because you deserve it AND because it is healthy.
Do not let stigma deter you from seeking help.
*Tricia Teekah currently chairs the Youth Steering Committee for the Guyana Youth Policy and is Board Secretary of the Interim National Youth Council.