The state is not doing enough to help the mentally ill

Dear Editor,

This letter is in response to the news of a mentally ill man attacking a schoolboy on Wednesday morning, November 28, in front of Parliament Building. First, I would like to express my happiness that the youth was not seriously injured. He was very lucky indeed. However, this incident raises several very serious issues that need addressing. I write as a public health professional as well as one of the individuals who was involved in the 24-hour occupation and People’s Parliament camp out at the park at the intersection of High Street and Brickdam – the same place where this attack occurred.

During the ten weeks that the People’s Parliament was in this location, we had a great deal of interaction with many of the mentally ill, homeless, and drug addicted persons who frequent that area. At no time were we ever attacked or threatened with attack by any of them, not even during the night or when there were only a few of us at the site. This is not to deny that mentally ill and/or drug addicted people can act violently, especially if provoked; I simply want to share a positive experience with this group to counter a lot of the public sentiment that seems to view the mentally ill as little better than animals, unworthy of our compassion, and who should just be locked away. Let us remember that mentally ill people are people just like everyone else – somebody’s child, that they are suffering from a medical problem – an illness that requires care and treatment, and that any of us can be affected by at any time.
However, Guyana is sorely lacking in mental health providers. As was pointed out in a recent (November 18) news article, there are just two psychiatrists operating in the public sector of the country (along with some understudies, foreign physicians, and a handful of nurses). In the article, Minister of Health Bheri Ramsaran talked about looking at “ways to incorporate dealing with mental health problems at the primary health care level,“ and of wanting to integrate a mental health component into the nurse training programme. It is alarming that the Ministry of Health is only now recognizing the deficiencies in this sector; they have been in charge for two decades now, more than enough time to have implemented a comprehensive strategy and trained multiple batches of professionals.

The Minister also mentioned that Guyana’s mental health challenge is greater “than our small economy can manage.” However, when one looks at other ministries – Housing and Water, as well as Tourism, for example – there seems to be ample cash to throw around. It is a tragic state of affairs for a nation when money can be found to spend on foreign artistes with violent behaviour, as well as on expensive fences and gates around public parks rather than on vulnerable and needy citizens. Life in Guyana is so full of contradictions, ironies, and nonsensical happenings like this however, it is no wonder that there is so much mental illness in our society. Health – physical as well as mental – involves having a clean, safe environment, jobs that pay a living wage, opportunities for advancement, and responsive public entities – all things that are sorely lacking in Guyana today. Not only is the state not doing enough to help the mentally ill, it must also take the blame for driving more Guyanese over the edge of sanity.

Also troubling is the fact that adequate, affordable, and effective drug treatment facilities do not exist in Guyana, leaving many people who need this kind of help without any place to turn. Drugs (including alcohol and tobacco) are very easily available in Guyana today and the conditions of our society so desperate for many that addiction – as a way to escape from the stresses and strains of daily life – has become commonplace. The absence of enough other positive pastimes, the lack of counselling and support services for individuals in times of crisis, and societal acceptance of substance abuse (eg, songs that glorify alcohol consumption) also contributes to this problem. The few drug treatment programmes that do exist do not receive adequate support from the government and the funds that are promised are not disbursed in a timely fashion.

Sadly, social services are desperately lacking and underfunded across the board in Guyana. In another recent article (Nov 14), the 2011 Annual Report of the Ministry of Labour, Human Services and Social Security, openly cites the inadequacy of resources as contributing to its failure to realize several key objectives. The lack of commitment to providing these ministries – the ones most crucial to creating, maintaining, and supporting a healthy society – with sufficient resources to function effectively speaks volumes about the priorities of this government and their commitment to the poor and vulnerable of Guyana.

If a fraction of the money that is spent on frivolous entertainment, super-salaries, pensions, and waste-time commissions, that is stolen by corrupt officials, or wasted on ridiculous projects, was used instead to improve the lives and circumstances of poor people, Guyana would be a much healthier and happier place – where people would be proud to reside, where children would be safe, and where those who need assistance would receive it. The fact that this doesn’t happen is maddening indeed. In fact, what is happening is that Guyanese are being attacked daily by those who sit inside Parliament building! We the people of Guyana deserve better, and we must demand that our government be more accountable to us, does more to meet our needs, and improve our quality of life. Stand up, speak out, and demand your rights, my fellow Guyanese- that is the only way this madness will end!

Yours faithfully,
S Nageer

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