As Guyana joins with countries around the world to observe World Mental Health Day on October 10, 2014, significant challenges remain that prevent many Guyanese from accessing quality mental health services in a timely manner.
The assessment and management of mental disorders remains poor, and even the most basic treatment and support services remain out of reach for many underprivileged families.
Startling estimates were recently released by the Pan-American Health Organization (PAHO), indicating that 19-24% of the population in the Americas suffer from a mental disorder. In Guyana, where there are less than five full-time psychiatrists, less than 300 beds in the National Psychiatric Hospital, and no day treatment or community residential facility, approximately 142,000-179,500 individuals are estimated to be in need of mental health services.
Today, our dedicated mental health professionals remain overworked and underappreciated, and struggle to deal with a patient population that the health sector lacks the capacity to deal with. Despite efforts over the years to train more mental health professionals, important stakeholders remain disengaged, financial, human and infrastructural resources are scarce, and widespread stigma against individuals with mental illness exists – all within an outdated mental health legal framework dating back to 1930.
Tragically, all these signs point to the mental health sector in Guyana being in a state of crisis. Sometimes, it may appear that the existing problems are insurmountable, and that the few NGOs and other stakeholders who dare to conduct small-scale mental health programs are fighting a losing battle. However, the lives of our Guyanese brothers and sisters are too precious to give up on initiatives to bring some measure of relief to those who are in distress. Every effort, no matter how small, can go a long way to raise awareness, and to improve the quality of life for someone struggling with a mental disorder.
What keeps the Guyana Foundation’s mental health program going is the conviction that the promotion, protection and restoration of mental health must be regarded as a vital concern for all individuals, communities, and societies. As the World Health Organization has repeatedly stated, mental health is fundamental to our collective and individual ability as humans to think, emote, interact with each other, earn a living, and enjoy life.
Furthermore, all of us are connected, in some way, to individuals with mental disorders – they are our co-workers, our neighbours, family members, and friends, who are affected regardless of socio-economic status, ethnicity, religion, or political affiliation. So we cannot turn a blind eye to their needs.
This year, as World Mental Health Day is being observed, the Guyana Foundation has continued its grassroots efforts to promote, protect and restore mental health, by asking ordinary Guyanese to participate in a Mental Health hash-tag/selfie photo campaign. Participants, including children, and young adults, have been emailing us their photos with uplifting messages and encouragement for those who are struggling with mental disorders.
These photos will be available on the Foundation’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/theguyanafoundation, and members of the public are welcome to participate and add their voice by emailing email@example.com.
The response we have gotten indicates that across the aisle, Guyanese are starting to realize that we can no longer afford to remain silent and helplessly watch our loved ones live undignified lives of pain, confusion and suffering.
Recently, several brave individuals have stepped forward to share the stories about their personal struggles with various forms of mental illness. Some of them recounted heartbreaking stories of trauma, betrayal, discrimination, isolation, shame, and silence.
Others, though, are more hopeful, like the story of a young man we met recently who has been living with bipolar disorder for 10 years. He and his family members were able to educate themselves and establish support mechanisms to ensure that his symptoms do not spiral out of control. He is now able to work two days per week and strives towards meaningful goals that he believes he can achieve.
And then, there are ordinary individuals who have made the world of difference in local communities, like Pastor Kishun, who received funding from the Guyana Foundation to conduct a monthly mental health photo exhibition in the Blairmont/Ithaca area in West Berbice, Mr. Shirvington Hannays from Canada who has generously funded a program to help restore the dignity and self-worth of individuals living on the streets of Georgetown, and Dr. Latchman Narain, who left his anger management practice in Toronto to travel to Guyana and conduct training programs for over 150 stakeholders in the mental health sector in March.
These examples illustrate that although the challenges we face are great, they are not insurmountable if each of us do something to help create a more supportive environment for those in need. Every Guyanese has the opportunity and duty to contribute something meaningful to this conversation, even if it’s just talking about mental health with people they know.
This year, World Mental Health Day 2014 should serve to remind us of our pressing obligation to participate in the process of raising awareness, fighting stigma, and improving, in some way, the quality of life of those living with mental disorders. The challenges we face may not be overcome immediately, but if we work together, more low-cost, creative, grassroots projects can be undertaken to ensure that progress is made, and lives are transformed.