“Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.”- Bill Clinton
The society has been in a state of shock since Saturday when news emerged of the brutal murders of a five-year-old boy and his grandmother by her machete-wielding son who was said to be of unsound mind in Martha Brae, Trelawny, Jamaica.
Mental illness is a complex health and societal issue. Mental wellness, oftentimes, is not spoken about. It is viewed as being separate and apart from one’s overall state of well-being. Mental wellness requires the support of the family and the wider community. In most instances, the mentally challenged find it difficult to take their medication. This is where the support of family is crucial in ensuring that those who struggle with this issue take their medication as directed.
Sadly, many families do not wish to be associated with the mentally challenged resulting in many of those individuals living on the streets and fending for themselves. We tend to forget that those who are mentally challenged are sometimes physically and sexually abused, especially those who live on the streets.
There are some in society who perceive mental health challenges as superstitious and linked to witchcraft. There is some amount of fear regarding how to deal with family members who are mentally challenged and this fear emerges from a place of misinformation and biases.
There also seems to be a break down regarding the State’s response in assisting families who have members who are mentally challenged. The news reported that the community mental health provider was called when this 28-year-old man started to behave strangely once again. According to the news, the family was told that they should call the police for help. We need to clearly define the roles of those agencies which are tasked to provide assistance in this regard. It is not the first time we have heard of this complaint, we can only hope this will be the last time.
The way forward
The World Health Organization (WHO) defines mental health as a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.
Disturbingly, the WHO says about half of mental disorders begin before the age of 14 and that most low and middle countries have only one child psychiatrist for every 1 to 4 million people. A child who displays the traits of mental disorder will become an adult with a mental disorder if he/she is not treated.
The Health Ministry needs to reposition the issue of mental health on the front burner. A broad-based conversation involving all the stakeholders of mental health is urgently needed. Yes, there have been television advertisements involving mental health messages, however, are these public education messages enough and are they effective?
The reality is that almost every family has been impacted by a family member or a family friend who is struggling or has struggled with mental illness. The harsh reality of life makes all of us vulnerable to mental health challenges. The time is now for the society to be more engaging and supportive of mental health initiatives. The brutal attack over the weekend in Martha Brae in Trelawny should not have happened as the signs were there. The young man had a history of mental illness. According to the news, he had chopped someone before from the said community.
We need to change this narrative and redouble our efforts to give support to those who are mentally challenged. We need to remove the veil of misinformation and stigma regarding mental health. How many of us know which institution to call for assistance for our family members who are struggling with mental health issues? How many of us are aware that anxiety, depression or that low feeling that we all experience occasionally is a form of mental illness and that this requires medical intervention? How many of us realize that there is no shame in speaking with a counsellor to work out issues in our lives?
We need to re-educate the population to perceive psychiatrists in a positive light, especially since too many in the society are of the perception that only “mad” people see a psychiatrist. What is in place since the closure of Bellevue Hospital? Many families genuinely do not know where to turn for help for their loved ones. Additionally, private mental health care is rather costly and this excludes the average family.
Collectively, as a society we need to be more supportive of those who are mentally challenged. We need to do more than just empathize with the family in Martha Brae, as well as with all those other families who have encountered similar situations with their loved ones. The repositioning of mental health, as well as accompanying issues is far overdue. We need to be more responsive to the needs of families who are grappling with family members who suffer from mental illness. We need to work assiduously to have more coordination between and among all the stakeholders of mental health. The government, through the Ministry of Health, needs to prioritize mental health since the state of our mental health directly impacts our general well being.
In the words of Aristotle Onassis, it is during our darkest moments that we must focus to see the light.
Wayne Campbell is an educator and social commentator with an interest in development policies as they affect culture and/or gender issues.