THE GUYANA I WANT| The Sad, The Mad and The Obeah Man

Guyana, the only English-speaking country in South America with a landmass similar to that of the United kingdom and an estimated total population of 750,000 is home to one of the world’s largest untouched rainforest. Since its discovery, Guyana has been known for its pristine rainforests and the world’s largest single drop waterfall, the magnificent Kaieteur Fall.

Amidst all of this life, and in the last decade Guyana’s claim to fame has been shifted to something more sinister and even more daunting. According to the WHO 2012 report Guyana suicide rate hangs at 44.2 per 100,000 people. This figure is markedly high compared to 28.9 seen in South Korea, the country with the second highest rate and a total population of 50.22 million (2013).

Interestingly, tomorrow October 10th, Guyana along with the rest of the world will observe World Mental Health day under the theme “psychological first aid and the support people can provide to those in distress”.  I believe this is a fitting theme as Guyana is in dire need of psychological first aid as Guyana’s mental health issues are multifaceted.

It is disheartening to know that over the years Guyana mental health issues have continued to be neglected. As such, persons living with mental illnesses have been for the most part left to drown as there is little to no avenue for them to be helped.

Sadly, a major reason for this is the perception of many citizens. Many still believe that people who are living with mental illnesses are either just sad, mad or is the “Obeah man do dem”.

In many instances supernatural intervention has been attributed to afflictions of Guyanese with mental illnesses and as a result many Guyanese do not view these diseases as real. This has resulted in a population who are either afraid to seek help out of fear of being considered weak, laughed at or stigmatized. Or those who are not concerned with supporting others in distress.

Further, with only Five (yes 5!!!) full-time professional psychiatrists in the country efforts by the Ministry of Public Health to effectively improve Guyana’s mental healthcare are crippled. Moreover, a lack of facilities and a fully functioning mental health strategy puts a strain on the human resources available. This coupled with cultural norms have continued to be the catalyst for the surge in negative outcomes of mental illnesses in Guyana.

While we must applaud the efforts of the Government, FBO’s and NGO’s who have over the last two years paid special emphasis on suicide awareness and prevention, we must recognise that many other mental illnesses still remain neglected. I believe the reason for this is that there is popular belief that Guyana has a suicide problem.

However, suicide is but a symptom of Guyana’s real issue which is that Guyana has a mental health problem. One that has stemmed from lack of resources. From poverty, poor working and living conditions, little to no avenues to express self in a safe space. From substance abuse and misuse, and the resulting negative impact alcohol and illicit drug use have had on our people. From Guyanese not being equipped with good coping mechanisms albeit from lack of education by the lay populace on mental issues.

As a result, and until we start taking the necessary actions and making meaningful steps towards eradicating generations of cultural beliefs, improving our mental health facilities, providing more positive avenues to express self, and improving the lives of our poorest people; suicide, depression, and the other mental illnesses Guyanese are plagued by will continue to exist. Until we begin to render psychological first aid to our citizens in distress we will never be able to effectively resuscitate the mental health of this country. However if we do not act now, and, unlike our forests, Guyana will become a desert void of mentally healthy citizens.