By Marlon Madden
A Government minister has assured that plans are in the works to make treatment for mental health issues more accessible and to educate Barbadians on how to identify and report situations where that help is needed.
Minister of State in the Ministry of Health and Wellness Dr Sonia Browne gave that assurance on the heels of a spate of apparent suicides, even as she said she was not entirely satisfied with the work that has been done to address mental health concerns.
“We all know we need to get on it now, now, now. Barbados had three suicides over the past week and about five this year. People, especially young people, are crying out, sometimes in the wilderness, for help,” she said on Thursday as she addressed the opening of the Healthy Caribbean Coalition’s (HCC) two-day Mobilising for 2025 – A Caribbean Civil Society NCD Forum, at the Courtyard by Marriott Bridgetown.
“As a government, as a Healthy Caribbean Coalition, as a Heart and Stroke Foundation, are we reaching and are we getting the message across to the population effectively? Are we effectively tackling risk factor reduction, for instance, throughout all of society effectively? So how do we adjust our lenses so that we can see everything?”
“I want to speak a little more on what I am seeing and what I think needs to be developed and improved, even if a few feathers have to be ruffled . . . . I, too, have concerns,” added Dr Browne.
The Minister said accessibility to mental health services can always be improved. She said she was not completely satisfied but acknowledged that it was “still a work in progress”.
“Right now, mental health is being addressed within the Psychiatric Hospital and polyclinics . . . but there is always room for improvement. The idea now is to really work with nurses and the members of the community, even for emergency mental health care, so you know what to do. For instance, if you have a suicide risk where to go and seek help,” she explained, adding that there is a need for a more inclusive and multidisciplinary approach “where the patient is included in the care plan”.
Against that background, Dr Browne later told reporters that the Mia Mottley-led administration has started to embark on several plans to tackle issues related to mental health and wellness, with a heavy focus on public education and training.
She said the plans in the pipeline will incorporate the Psychiatric Hospital and the University of the West Indies (UWI) in the area of research which she said had been derailed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“So, right now, there are mental health plans afoot in terms of treatment, in terms of engaging the public. The Psychiatric Hospital, for instance, the personnel there are working on issues with respect to the way forward in terms of reaching people, making mental health care more accessible, getting into the community so that we can teach about health – all in an effort to get rid of stigma and to have people come forward,” explained Dr Browne.
She said she was also looking forward to greater education of teachers and principals on what signs to look for and when to report problems and concerns about students’ mental health; as well as bringing greater awareness to Barbadians on how they can identify mental health concerns among members of their communities and how to report those concerns.
“So those are things that are in process as I speak,” Dr Browne said.
Acknowledging that the pandemic had brought more mental health issues to the fore, she added: “I personally wonder if it was always in the background and it has just been exacerbated by COVID.”
“We are seeing, according to the psychiatrists, more people reporting for help. Obviously, some are not and most of the time because of community stigma [and] family stigma. So all of these organisations and all of these meetings – whether it be the small island developing states or the Caribbean through the Healthy Caribbean Coalition – are working towards addressing the issue of mental health.”
The two-day HCC seminar has brought together several local and regional civil society health organisations and other HCC stakeholders to discuss issues related to NCDs, and mental health, neurological and substance abuse disorders.