Time to commit to mental health

Dr. Christopher Tufton

Gleaner Archive – October 5, 2018

The time for tiptoeing around mental illness and the impact on our population is long past. There is no better time to come to terms with that fact than today, as we kick off our observation of Mental Health Week in Jamaica and ahead of World Mental Health Day on Wednesday.

In 2015, there were close to 108,000 patient visits for mental illness in public clinics, most of those for persons with schizophrenia or other psychotic conditions. By 2016, that number had moved to 132,000 patient visits.

The Jamaica Health and Lifestyle Survey for 2016-2017 tells us that our youth are not immune. It reveals, for example, that the highest overall prevalence of depression was for youth aged 15-24 years and 25-34 years – in addition to persons in the over-75 years age group.

The 2017 Global School Health Survey (GSHS) shows that approximately a quarter of adolescents aged 13-17 years reported considering suicide in the past year and a similar proportion reported making a plan to commit suicide. Additionally, 18 per cent reported that they had attempted suicide.

It should come as no surprise then that the Ministry of Health, along with its local collaborators, is keen on engaging public discourse and promoting positive action, in the best interest of safeguarding the health and well-being of our young people affected by mental illness.


This is in line with this year’s theme for World Mental Health Day, ‘Young people and Mental Health In a Changing World’, and having regard to the challenges facing our youth. Daily, they are compelled to negotiate a world characterised by rapid and ongoing technological advancement and differing sociocultural realities with which they have been brought ever closer, courtesy of, among other things, social media.

For some, it is an opportunity to thrive, but for others, it is not, with implications for our society’s sustainable development.

Still, mental illness knows no bounds. It affects all ages, classes and races. This is the reason the Ministry of Health has made the prevention and control of non-communicable diseases (NCDs), among which mental illness is counted, one of its key strategic priorities for human capital development.

As part of that prioritisation effort, the ministry emphasises the promotion of healthy lifestyles, early screening and diagnosis, and the strengthening of existing programmes and instituting of new treatment modalities.


To ensure that our Jamaicans get the help they need to cope with their varying forms of mental illness, we have, among other things, ongoing training of psychiatric nursing aides. Thirty-two of them commenced training at the end of September to aid in the delivery of community mental-health care. They will join 220 others currently in the system, with the goal to train an additional 50 each year.

We are also currently in dialogue with a local funding agency for the acquisition of more emergency vehicles for community mental-health services, with the intention to have 10 added to the existing fleet of vehicles and, ultimately, making at least one vehicle available in each parish.

The ministry is also putting the finishing touches on a mental-health/suicide helpline that is to be managed through a public-private partnership with a non-governmental organisation and will shortly launch a media campaign to help to facilitate a reduction in stigma and discrimination affecting persons with mental illness, including those at the Bellevue Hospital.

Of the 800 patients currently at Bellevue, some 500 are social cases, having been abandoned by their families, despite being ready for reintegration into their communities – some of them for several years now. This is intolerable.

It is these and other realities affecting the mentally ill that the ministry will highlight with the upcoming campaign, thus helping to lay the groundwork for the provision of support for such persons and their families at the community level.


But the ministry cannot act alone; the dilemma requires our collective efforts, beginning with the conversation that removes the veil from mental illness, how it impacts people’s lives, and an exposure of the ways in which we can support persons living with mental illness.

The World Health Organization tells us: “Much can be done to help build mental resilience from an early age to help prevent mental distress and illness among adolescents and young adults, and to manage and recover from mental illness. Prevention begins with being aware of, and understanding, the early warning signs and symptoms of mental illness.”

It adds: “Parents and teachers can help build life skills of children and adolescents to help them cope with everyday challenges at home and at school. Psychosocial support can be provided in schools and other community settings … .”

We need, however, to begin the conversation.

As we observe this World Mental Health Week, let us make the effort to safeguard the mental health of all Jamaicans, young and old, understanding that, in fact, there is no good health without good mental health.

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