Guyana: Mental Health of a Nation: Concerns and Possible Solutions – By Lear Matthews

Guyana: Mental Health of a Nation: Concerns and Possible Solutions

By Lear Matthews

There may be some validity to the belief that a correlation exists between a nation’s mental health and its economic growth. While political and economic change is generally in the forefront of the national development discussion, until recently, very little attention has been paid to psychological well-being or mental health in Guyana. This commentary recognizes the urgency of addressing this dimension of wellness, as it becomes a part of the national conversation.

The Dilemma       

Cultural factors and recent trends in Guyana, including the World Health Organization report of the upsurge in the rate of suicide, warrant an examination of the country’s emotional pulse and level of tolerance. In this regard, social scientists have found that vulnerability, feelings of isolation and detachment tend to promote tension and a sense of loss, particularly among young people. A past culture of political corruption and high levels of unemployment and crime can exacerbate feelings of despair and marginalization, leading to psychological distress.  Consequently, a realistic assessment of needed resources to deal effectively with mental health problems in our dear land is imminent.

Recently, concerned Guyanese at home and abroad, including this writer, have sounded the alarm for the decriminalization of attempted suicide and the act of suicide in Guyana, which would remove a major impediment to effective mental health intervention. We trust that this call will be answered soon.

Officials’ Views

One can argue that the high rate of suicide is symptomatic of societal or interpersonal stress, potentially leading to severe mental health problems.  To put this in perspective, President David Granger, in an effort to assess and comprehend the magnitude of the problem, said, “it is a worrying factor…and as I always say, happy people do not kill themselves.” He further stated that “some people do not have the necessary tools to deal with whatever problem they are faced with”. This can be viewed as testimony to the impact of embedded cultural and structural/societal factors on behavior, yet to be realised, but simmering in the psyche of a developing nation. One may ask, what are those needed ‘tools’ to which the president referred? What is the nature of the ‘problems’ faced, and how exactly are they connected to peoples’ emotional state? The answers could be quite revealing.

Acting Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Jeetendra Mohanlall, suggested that mental health is everybody’s business and communities should be vigilant with respect to changes in their loved ones’ behavior. He seems to understand the critical role of primary group mutual support.

However, Dr. Mohanlall also admitted that there is a need for adequate professional training and the provision of more resources in the field of mental health in Guyana.  The deficit ratio of mental health practitioners (social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, psychiatric nurses and counselors) to potential service consumers is understandable, but troubling.

Some Possible Solutions

An effective response requires an understanding of the core causes of this malady and a deliberative plan of action with input from diverse sources.  Collaboration among the Ministries of Health, Social Services, Social Cohesion, NGO’s and overseas-based Home town Associations, could contribute to resources including training of mental health professionals. The University of Guyana, through its Social Work Program, must play a prominent role in research, program design, prevention and treatment of mental illness.

Educating the public through community forums, cultural events, media (including the internet), and religious institutional involvement, would build awareness, recognize symptoms in a timely manner and improve attitude toward treatment.  Done with respect, professionalism and cultural sensitivity, this will help to overcome fears, myths and taboos based on traditional values, customs and beliefs.

These activities should not only be informed by local community practices, history, trends and needs, but must also permeate rural, coastal and urban districts, transcending ethnic groups, age, gender identity, political affiliation and religion. It is the firm belief of this writer that these constitute some of the essential ingredients needed to combat the challenges that produce mental dislocation in our homeland.

Forthcoming: “The politics of mental illness and gun violence in the US.”

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