The island’s mental health facilities are incapable of coping with the resulting trauma if a major natural disaster strikes, Minister of Health and Wellness Jeffrey Bostic said.
However, Bostic signalled Government’s intention to address this deficiency as a matter of urgency, given the magnitude and frequency of storms affecting the region in recent times.
“I am not aware of any plan or programme at the moment to deal with mental trauma associated with natural disasters. This is a matter which we must address and start to develop the relevant programme,” the minister said this morning on the sidelines of the opening of the Pan American Health Organization’s regional training programme for trainers, on mental health and psychosocial support in disaster management.
“We need to start with our first responders and we have to go on a sensitization programme nationally so that Barbadians are aware of the destruction that can be caused by a devastating hurricane. We are taking this seriously as a Government,” he added.
Bostic explained that the current mental health services in Barbados are already very heavily subscribed. He therefore argued that “when it is considered that individuals with no known mental health related diagnosis are placed at risk with the onset of a disaster, the potential disease burden rises astronomically, and the need for interventions to avert a public health crisis becomes an urgent necessity.”
According to the latest data from the island’s lone psychiatric hospital, the facility has an average in-patient population of 530 persons with an annual average of 1,229 admissions recorded over the five-year period 2013 to 2017. Of these, an average of 974, or 79 per cent, were re-admissions. During the same five-year period, 2013 to 2017, there was an average of 9,612 attendances in the hospital’s outpatients’ clinic while the mental health clinics in the polyclinics, or what are sometimes referred to as district services saw, an average of 8,281 attendances.
Bostic contended while the system can handle the regular demands, it was important for Government to move to the next step to ensure functionality in a mass crisis scenario.
“You can see that services are heavily utilized but we need to go a step further. The day-to-day mental assistance that is required is one thing but a national traumatic experience like the Dominican experience for example [Hurricane Maria], is a whole different ball game. We have to now work on sensitizing and preparing people for what is possible,” said Bostic, while noting that such psychological training must extend to Barbadian responders rendering assistance to hurricane ravaged neighbours.
“This is an area that we have not paid attention to regionally. Having experienced the aftermath of hurricanes in other islands, this is critical to rebuilding. We have to train our first responders to be able to deal with what they would encounter. We need to ensure that they would be able to cope. We have to prepare them for seeing communities and countries being devastated and lives disrupted. This is traumatic not just for the citizens of the countries affected but for the first responders as well,” he added.