World Suicide Prevention Day was observed on Monday, September 10, 2018 and the attention was drawn once again to mental health issues in Guyana, as we are wont to give only periodic bursts of attention to such critical matters. But although, regrettably, this country still ranks third on the list of the countries with the highest rates of suicide in the world, the issue of mental health should not be seen only through the lens of suicide.
Recently, there were some particularly bizarre cases of family-based violence that have gripped the attention of the public, highlighting some of the mental health trauma that seems to be facing some families on a day to day basis. A 26-year-old East Coast Demerara mother brutally killed her 3-year-old son by stabbing him with a knife and then placing him on a bed in their small shack. His 4-year-old brother managed to escape and alert neighbours to the tragedy. The woman’s explanation was that she had a dream that she was going to die and didn’t want to leave her “favourite” son behind, so she killed him.
It is a pretty well established in mental health circles that dreams of death and other such negative occurrences, represent high anxiety and can be a sign of depression, schizophrenia, and personality disorder. It is believed that such a person is also susceptible to suicidal thoughts, and as such treatment is very necessary. This is not to say that we are attempting to diagnose the particular cases or have concluded with any certainty that these cases fall under the umbrella of a mental health issue, but what is quite obvious is that those in authority and with the responsibility for examining and making a determination as to the mental health status of the various perpetrators of the crimes being discussed here, must act quickly in making such determinations and looking at remedies.
Such tragedies do not only affect the victim and the perpetrator, they have far reaching effects on those closely related, such as the surviving four-year-old son, other relatives, neighbours and the community. Such negative effects can be manifested at a time and in a place where it might prove difficult to conceive a nexus with this event, and persons can live entire lives with untreated mental health issues.
In the same village on the East Coast, a 44-year-old man who was allegedly physically abusing his wife, reportedly broke a louvre window pane and fatally stabbed his own 21-year-old son who was intervening in defence of his mother. The man died in his mother’s arms, a stark illustration of the brutal family-based violence that has enveloped this country for a number of years, a phenomenon which cries out for much deeper investigation and analysis than has occurred thus far.
As if all that was not enough, and in a surprising twist of circumstances, a woman who neighbours described as being in a “non-stop abusive” relationship with her husband who she would often attack, allegedly razed their mutual home to the ground, killing her husband in the process. Reports that she herself made no attempt to exit the burning building but had to be forcibly rescued by neighbours, probably points to a state of mind that was far from healthy at that point of time.
Many persons are of the view that for a perpetrator of as grievous a crime as murder to be considered not guilty by reason of insanity, whether temporary or permanent, means that the person essentially “got away with it” and justice was therefore not served, and the victims and their families are robbed of closure. However, this perception is most likely driven by the state of our mental health systems and facilities here in Guyana which are in dire need of enhancement, a situation which is improving way too slowly to have a serious impact on society.
We have made the point before in these pages that the justice system is not adequately prepared for the process of identifying and recommending adequate treatment for persons suffering from mental health problems in institutions suitable for detaining and treating persons who might have committed violent crimes. The result of this is that many persons with mental health issues remain untreated and are incarcerated with the general prison population which must create negative consequences for everyone involved. Potentially, such persons can serve their time and return to society untreated and possibly more dangerous to themselves and society than when first incarcerated.
There are many organisations that can help to assuage the mental health of the population, and these include religious organizations and social workers. In Guyana social workers carry out their unenviable task with very little resources, and this is another area that needs to be strengthened and gifted with adequate human, physical and financial resources and systems. The Guyana Police Force, critical to any scenario involving the safety of citizens and the reduction of crime, particularly violent crime, has still not been able to adequately deal with domestic disturbance reports, and this might have to do with the lack of an adequate inter-agency structure to deal with the various stages of domestic violence in all its forms. Minister of Legal Affairs and the Attorney General Basil Williams has stated that citizens should feel free to “blow the whistle,” and while he might have been focused on financial crimes, many reports have allegedly been made to the police about domestic violence issues that went unresolved, sometimes ending in the death of the victim of the continuous abuse.
The focus is on mental health with the worldwide observance of suicide prevention, and we can only hope that this focus survives and thrives beyond these few days, weeks and months to evolve a commitment and strategy to deal with a creeping problem enveloping our society.