We all need to take a serious look at our attitudes towards mental illness

Dear Editor,

While growing up in urban Guyana, I was privy to statements being made by adults, such as “he’s a little off,” “his head does come and go”, or she’s flighty”. As I attained adulthood and observed deviations in the comportment of certain individuals, I formulated and expressed similar remarks merely out of ignorance and mimicry. The unfortunate aspect of this all lay in the fact that despite the multiple euphemisms that we affixed to their condition, many of these individuals might have been in essence and actuality the sufferers of mental illness. Another equally disturbing fact is that these illnesses often go undiagnosed in our community.

Some families put forward every imaginable excuse under the sun to account for the behaviour of a son or daughter displaying traits of mental illness. Parents would also enter into a fierce battle of unearthing generational lineage, the sole intent being to prove that no history of mental illness was known or shown to be on a particular side of the family.  Mental illness does carry a stigma within some circles, thereby serving to dissuade parents from seeking outside help and intervention. This cycle of denial must cease. We can no longer lend a blind eye.  The veneer has been rent and the truth revealed that Guyana has a flawed perception of mental health.

Some forms of mental illness may be hereditary. Simply explained, if one individual has a mental illness that goes untreated and they have children then those children many also suffer from mental illness. That child may also grow up to have children, and the cycle continues. This is one of the primary reasons why the issue of mental illness must be properly addressed starting from the grassroots—the family. We must not only come but also accept the realization that unless we address mental health issues within our community, crime, suicide, neglect of children and homelessness will continue to rise. If we continue to dwell in denial the ills that ail Guyana will only worsen. They will also worsen if the government continues to limit funding for quality services and organizations that assist the mentally disabled.

In particular, parents need to be educated, encouraged and reassured. As an educator, I have been privy to situations that concern students who are obviously mentally challenged.  However, when the parents are notified, rather than look into the issue, the parents deny that such a problem exists. They refuse point blank to  accept the fact. It should be noted that in some cases teachers, administrators etc.  may be incorrect in their assessment, but in most cases they are correct. The sure and certain way to determine if a child is really mentally challenged is to get them evaluated by the appropriate qualified mental health professional. While it is somewhat disappointing to have a child diagnosed as suffering from mental illness, ignoring or denying the problem serves no beneficial purpose.

Dealing with mentally ill individuals can prove to be quite challenging, especially if that individual refuses help as is often the case. This is one of the reasons why it is of vital importance for everyone to be observant. This includes family, friends, teachers, pastors, social workers, doctors etc.

As a qualified mental nurse I am a strong advocate of counselling, medicine and therapy that help in the treatment of mental illness. To be the recipient of such services does not mean an individual is less than, more sick than, or will be frowned upon. What it does mean is that they are proactive in their mission to be as healthy as possible. This message need to be driven home— that treatment is good. We need to embrace it for the sake of those we love. Doing so will result in a stronger and healthier community.

Let us not overlook the fact that while Guyana is home to less than a million people it has the highest suicide rate in the world.  Not only does the evidence speak for itself but also in volumes.  Within the answers being sought for the increased rate of suicide may be a call for mental health reform, such as careful screening, prompt evaluation and treatment etc.

The clarion has once again been sounded, and the call is not only for the government. It is a call for us all to take a serious look at our attitudes towards mental illness. How do we support our children, our friends, parents, siblings etc. who are affected by the gamut of mental ailments?

Get it straight, right off the plate. It is about us, as a people, being more open to the idea that sometimes we actually do need help, if we are to remove the stigma and replace madness with gladness. A country’s wealth is gauged by its mental health.

Yours faithfully,

Yvonne Sam

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