Coming to terms with mental illness in society
This week this paper reported the apparent suicide of a 16-year-old on Sunday and the conviction, on the charge of murder on Wednesday, of a mother who set her one-year-old daughter ablaze, resulting in injuries leading to the infant’s death. The mother’s defense team had unsuccessfully pleaded that she was ill and not evil.
The number of suicides reported in the first half of this year is raising concerns, and rightly so.
The anecdotal evidence of mental health problems in The Bahamas is high. So also is the number of individuals who appear to have simply dropped out – whether from school, employment, church or social community.
The minister of health, Dr. Duane Sands, in a health symposium last September encouraged the public to respond to incidences of depression among friends and relatives as they would respond to complaints of persistent chest discomfort or the discovery of a lump in a breast.
And the minister counseled that we ought to look for warning signs.
The warning signs are many and sometimes difficult to identify. They can include subtle or sudden changes in behavior, reclusiveness, anxiety and fretfulness, agitation and or quick rage, irregular sleep patterns — too much or not enough — expressions of hopelessness or fear of losing someone or something or of being a disappointment or a burden to others.
The abuse of alcohol and other intoxicants, both prescription and illegal substances, can signal that an individual requires help in coping with everyday life.
Many of these behaviors are common in this country and elsewhere and do not rise to the level where outside assistance is sought or offered.
This is especially so if symptoms of despair or anxiety are related to recent developments and expected to be transitory: a death, a significant failure, a dramatic change in financial standing resulting from a lost job or a divorce or the end of a long-term relationship. Sadness following a loss is normal. But when an individual proves unable to move past a loss to resume normal life after a period of time, intervention by family and friends may be appropriate.
There are other more obvious mental illnesses that make it difficult or impossible for affected individuals to perform the most ordinary day-to-day activities, like keeping up with personal hygiene or keeping their surroundings in an acceptable state, or holding a job, for example.
In such cases, the intervention of psychiatrist or psychoanalyst, the administration of mind-altering medications and careful monitoring, sometimes within the confines of a mental health facility, may be the appropriate action needed.
Whether it is transitory depression or more overt mental illnesses, Bahamians have for too long looked at mental health problems in the narrowest of terms: a joke to be laughed off; silly behavior; something that people should shake off, or worse, something to be hidden and kept away from polite society.
We must do better.
Annually we observe mental health days or weeks or months. And then many return to the norm.
There does, however, appear to be real change on the horizon.
We want to acknowledge the great work being done at Sandilands Rehabilitation Centre, which is the country’s principal agency of response to mental health, and at community health clinics.
Mental illness has now been recognized globally as a non-communicable disease.
We welcome the minister of health’s advice that mental health has been named one of the five top priorities of the Ministry of Health.
We especially applaud the government’s initiative to provide mental health training for primary physicians and look forward to the outcome of the current yearlong plan to review and amend the 1969 Mental Health Act as announced by the minister last month.