Guyana Foundation: Tackling suicide one life at a time

“We believe that the human resources of Guyana are the most valuable resource that this country has and we have to do everything within our power to develop it, to protect it and to ensure that all people can live lives of dignity and respect and lives that are productive. That is what is driving us.”

It was some time last year that members of the non-governmental organisation, Guyana Foundation (GF), ventured into a community to distribute school supplies to children.

Volunteers from the village came out, and among them was a 16-year-old girl. Guyana Foundation Managing Director, Anthony Autar, remembered that she was very interested in the Foundation’s work.

“She was giving us suggestions on what we could come back to do; she was interested in bringing dancing to the community,” Autar said.

But, when GF returned to the community a few weeks later, they could not find the teenager. Eventually, they were told that she had committed suicide.

“I was shocked; she was full of life and she was so seemingly hopeful for the future. It was only when we learnt the underlying reasons did we realise what she had been dealing with,” Autar said. “We had already started our suicide programme but her death really opened up our eyes; it made us realise that even within our own mix that there are people struggling with their own issues.”

The Guyana Foundation is a charitable trust with big goals. Started in 2013 by Supriya Singh-Bodden, the NGO is run by a board of trustees. As the Managing Director, Autar is tasked with running the day to day affairs of the NGO.

But the NGO is made up of more than persons sitting behind big fancy desks. Rather, the body is made up of persons who feel and hurt just as anyone else and their hearts are completely into the work they do.

Indeed, each time a life is lost and GF is aware of it, the members feel the hurt as if they had lost a loved one.

“The number of people ending their lives by suicide was just too high for us to sit back and keep planning and waiting. Suicide does not discriminate and does not wait; it doesn’t matter if you’re rich or poor, young or old,” Autar said in an interview with Kaieteur News.

“The Foundation really was started to transform the lives of people and communities in need,” Autar said. He continued, “We originally started off with eight different project areas, including mental health, literacy, youth and women empowerment, community renewal, and care of the elderly.”

So far, GF has impacted entire communities through its charitable work. In one area, it provided solar energy products to those living without electricity.

According to Autar, GF had big plans when it began. However, he said, things had diverged slightly from what the foundation had set out to do. He explained that part of the reason was the recognition that some needs in society were more urgent than others.

“We couldn’t wait to do things the way we had planned it,” he said. For example, he said, GF’s mental health project had not been placed as high on the body’s agenda as it is now.

“Our plan was to start it this year but we actually started it in January of last year because we felt the need was high,” he said.

He further said that GF did a number of different things in the area of mental health. Firstly, he said, GF launched a sensitisation programme to tackle mental health. This programme saw GF running ads in the local media, creating a database of the few local mental health professionals, and meeting with communities to discuss the issue.

“We wanted to raise awareness about mental health issues because, at the time, there were very few persons talking about it,” he said. He further stressed that GF understood that it could not simply jump into the area of mental health without first understanding the basic principles.

“It is part of our core ethics; whatever project we do, we have to always follow the highest level of professional standards,” Autar added.

This ethic saw GF collaborating with a researcher from Holland and together they worked to conduct a study into the socioeconomic factors driving suicide in Guyana. Additionally, he said, the findings were released in September 2014 and the data is being used to develop GF’s policies on suicide by using the information on the underlying driving factors.

Outside of its mental health programme, The Guyana Foundation does other charitable work. Here, a boat full of barrels of donations is being loaded to head off to Santa Rosa.

According to Autar, one of most alarming findings that came out of the study was the high prevalence of violence in Guyana’s society, which is often covered up in homes. He said the prevalence of violence against children was also notably high.

“One of the things we realised is that when it comes to suicide intervention and prevention, you hear a lot of talk about crisis hotline, which we’ve called for in the past and counselling. All of these things are good and necessary but those are necessary in the latter stages of what we call the process to suicide. What we realised is that if we really want to make an impact we’ve got to start focusing on the underlying issues that are affecting our people. We’re talking about things like poverty, violence in homes and communities, and poor coping skills,” he said.

He continued, “So, what we’re doing now and what you’re going to see more of next year is more programmes tailored to addressing these socioeconomic factors in a proactive sense. We want to prevent people from having to even reach the stage where they have to call a suicide hotline; we want to get them before then.”

Meanwhile, when questioned on the lack of suicide professionals in Guyana, Autar opined that there is a drastic need for more persons in the field. He said that while there are many social workers in Guyana who deal with the basic needs concerning mental health, worldwide, mental health suffers from a lack of human resources.

“And that’s because there are not a lot of financial resources out there so, when people think about career opportunities, there’s not a lot of encouragement for people to get into this field, especially when they see how limited the funds are that are available and you see how limited the resources are that you have to work with,” Autar said.

He further opined that the attention placed on the suicide rate here in Guyana only really started last year when the World Health Organisation (WHO) released its report which indicated that Guyana had the highest suicide rate in the world.

“Before then, people knew that suicide in Guyana was high but they weren’t really seeing it as something at crisis level,” he said. He continued, “After the report, people realised that something had to be done and that we needed professionals, but you can’t train people overnight. Training certainly takes a long time. So it wouldn’t be immediate; even if you provide scholarships and opportunities, you just wouldn’t get people right away.”

He said too that mental health professionals are often not taken seriously since many believe that the field is not “real science”.

“The misconceptions drive the idea that mental health professionals are not really engaged in real and important science-driven work so people would be reluctant to get into a field that has this stigma around it.”

Collaborative effort

“It’s important that we look beyond the Ministry of Public Health,” Autar said.
According to him, persons often believe that tackling mental health rests solely on the Ministry of Public Health. However, he said, this should not be so. He indicated that there are a lot of different factors that determine mental health, including socioeconomic, cultural, political and environmental factors.

“So if you have such a wide variety of things determining the state of one’s mental health…that extends beyond the Ministry of Public Health. When you really analyse these determinants, it seems to me that the response has to be a national collaboration and must include input from stakeholders across the spectrum.”

He especially noted that there is need for collaborations with the Ministry of Legal Affairs to ensure that the rights of persons suffering from poor mental health are adequately represented. Autar has a particular interest in law and worked in New York as a licensed attorney with a background in mental health.

“When we’re talking about people with mental health issues, we need laws in place to ensure there is no discrimination and that there is a framework to ensure that persons with mental illnesses are treated with dignity, respect and compassion. Because, if isn’t done, people with mental illnesses are going to remain in the shadows and they are not going to reach out because they will feel like they will be targeted and that their rights would not be respected.”

Further speaking on laws, Autar opined that the criminalisation of suicide must be revoked.

“They need to revoke that law immediately. All of the NGOs that have been doing work in this area have been calling for that because all it does is drive stigma and fear and it keeps people in the shadows. Who is going to come forward and say that they tried to end their lives if they are worried they could be prosecuted? That law must go,” he emphasised.

He also noted that other ministries, such as the Ministry of Business and the Ministry of Social Protection to become involved since areas under them had effects on the mental health of the citizenry.

He nonetheless emphasised that though a collaborative effort is needed, the Ministry of Public Health must lead the fight against suicide. Last month, the Public Health Ministry launched its National Suicide Prevention Strategy 2015-2020. Autar said that the strategy looks very good on paper, but its implementation will be the true test of its worth.

“The strategy highlighted many of the shortcomings in the system but, in terms of implementation, we need to get the right people involved,” he stressed. He explained that mental health is an extremely regulated area in many countries because lives are at stake. Therefore, he said, there is the need to have properly qualified persons here in Guyana.

“It’s essential that the people who are implementing this plan are properly qualified and that they understand the human aspect of mental health,” he said.
Autar further opined that a collaborative approach is also needed to limit the access to methods of committing suicide. Especially in Guyana where ingesting poison is the most common way of committing suicide, access to pesticides and agricultural products needed to be limited.

However, he said, prevention programmes should not be implemented unilaterally.
“You can’t go into communities and dictate people, especially when it affects their livelihood. The only way that is going to work is if there is community involvement in shaping programmes. So, it’s not like if outsiders are going in and telling people what to do. There has to be community involvement in developing how the prevention system will be implemented.” He noted that this approach works in other countries, such as India.

For GF, tackling suicide is one of its highest priorities. Recently GF completed a six-day training workshop. These participants ranged from educators, social workers, and childcare providers.

The workshop was facilitated by Guyanese-Canadian mental health professional, Dr. Latchmin Narain. Highly trained, Dr. Narain is a registered member of the Ontario Association of Consultants, Counselors, Psychometrics and Psychotherapists (OACCPP) and holds a Master’s Degree as well as a Doctorate Degree in Counseling Psychology. Dr. Narain also runs the Anger Management Centre of Toronto Inc.

GF also plans to host its second set of workshops in December. This workshop will be conducted by Lauren Johnson, an internationally recognized Guyanese-Canadian psychotherapist. Johnson holds three Master’s Degrees in Counseling Psychology. She specializes in Experiential, Transpersonal and Creative Expression Healing methods. Furthermore, Johnson has travelled throughout Canada to conduct presentations on professionalism for settlement and integration counselors. She has also developed various mental health training curriculum and assisted counselors in dealing with survivors of torture.

Meanwhile, Autar stressed that the GF will continue its work, despite whatever challenges it may face.

“We believe that the human resources of Guyana are the most valuable resource that this country has and we have to do everything within our power to develop it, to protect it and to ensure that all people can live lives of dignity and respect and lives that are productive. That is what is driving us,” he said. “If we don’t do this and people continue to live in poverty and continue to find themselves in situations where they become hopeless and end their lives by suicide then we’ve lost an irreplaceable asset to this country and we can never get it back.”