Time to improve mental health services

Some time during the morning of Monday this week, Rawletta Onika Greaves of Scotsburg Corriverton went to visit her father’s aunt, a regular practice of hers, according to reports, and ostensibly her mentally-ill father as well, since he resided at his aunt’s home. It was to be the last day of her life, as by midday she was a bloody corpse; her head bashed in by her father, Charles Albert, who used a piece of wood with nails embedded to inflict the fatal wounds.

Albert’s aunt, Doreen Ferdinand, told this newspaper that her nephew, whom she had raised from the time he was six months old, had been in the Guyana Defence Force (GDF), but left because of his mental illness. She did not indicate whether he was discharged as medically unfit, or whether he had taken it upon himself to disengage himself from the army. According to Ferdinand, Albert had been “learning to fly” in the air corps. Whether this was conjecture on her part, or true, or whether it was something Albert’s unstable mind had dreamed up can only be confirmed by the GDF, if it so chooses. Also, if it is the case that Albert had spent several years in the GDF and then had to leave because of his mental illness, does the army owe him anything? A duty of care, perhaps?

Clearly, Albert, like so many other mentally ill persons in Guyana, was not accessing the necessary health care. He was a ticking time-bomb waiting to explode and it would appear that it was the unplugging of an iron he may have been about to use that caused the deadly and devastating explosion.

His daughter Rawletta was, unfortunately, the person who unplugged the iron and she became, as a result, the enemy who must be eliminated. And she was. But it could just as easily have been his 83-year-old aunt who bore the brunt of the cruelty emanating from his sick mind.

If Albert’s mental state was in doubt, his actions—he calmly took a seat on the stairs—as his daughter’s battered body lay there would have removed it all. The former soldier was taken into police custody shortly after and will likely be charged. Can he stand trial, though? Quite possibly a psychiatric evaluation will be ordered to determine if Albert is compos mentis enough for a trial. If he is found not to be so, then the crime he committed will go unpunished and Rawletta’s death will be chalked up as another statistic under ‘murders committed by the mentally ill’. And given the state of mental health in Guyana—archaic laws, lack of proper institutions, lack of qualified medical personnel, among other things—Albert will be back at his aunt’s place in short order.

While Albert’s act of filicide was entirely reprehensible, regardless of his mental state, and deserves the deepest condemnation, Ferdinand’s account of the events also brings into question Rawletta’s responsibility for her own safety.

The unwilling eyewitness, who lived with her mentally unstable nephew, related to this newspaper that long before the fatal blows were struck, Albert and Rawletta had been embroiled in a heated row during which he burst her head with a bottle and knocked out two of her teeth.  The now deceased woman had then armed herself with a cutlass, Ferdinand related, vengefully swearing to get even with her father. Surely Rawletta knew of her father’s mental state. Self preservation should have kicked in right then. Her next step should have been a visit to the police station and then the hospital or vice versa.

Even after neighbours staged an intervention, Ferdinand stated, her nephew and his daughter returned to the house and picked up the violent feud again. While Rawletta is not to be blamed for her demise, her alleged actions, as related by her great aunt, are at odds with the personality her mother described: “a very quiet and helpful person.” Perhaps it was the fact that her father drew first blood over what seems a trivial matter that made Rawletta snap. Child abuse is fairly common and parents have been known to batter their children into senselessness. However, physical abuse meted out by parents to adult children is extremely rare; once children are grown, cowardly abusive parents tend not to want to take the risk that there will be retaliation.

Given Albert’s brutality towards his daughter, there may have been physical abuse in the past, hence Monday’s events could have been the proverbial last straw for Rawletta.

The incidents of death of the mentally ill (suicide) and by the mentally ill have been increasing over the years. It is a well-known fact that Berbice is the suicide capital of Guyana and Guyana has one of the highest rates of suicide in the world – the rate being double the global average. For years there has been talk about plans for improved mental health services here with very little action, even after former health minister Leslie Ramsammy admitted two years ago that the mental health sector had been neglected. It’s time for an end to the talking. There is now a new health minister, who, unfortunately, was there in the ministry as a junior minister while the neglect was being perpetrated. Nevertheless, one hopes this very important area will see some action. Perhaps the provision of much improved mental health services can be the area where Dr Bheri Ramsaran makes his mark.

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