The underrated importance of mental health

In recent weeks, public discussions about mental health in The Bahamas have re-emerged.

Counterproductive to a proper appreciation of mental health is a fundamental misunderstanding of what mental health is, as many in society associate the term almost exclusively with individuals widely described as “crazy”.

The United States government website mentalhealth.gov states, “Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices.

“Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.”

Life experiences, biology and family history are among factors that contribute to mental health problems, and no one is immune.

Health and Wellness Minister Dr. Michael Darville told reporters this week that the Davis administration will introduce amendments to the Mental Health Act that would provide “more teeth and more tools” to address the country’s mental health challenges.

Dr. Darville referenced those on our streets who “clearly have mental disturbances”, adding that in “some of the instances with violent crimes, there’s always a possible undertone of some mental disturbance”.

Our general response to mental health, at least insofar as public dialogue is concerned, often centers on what ought to be done after individuals display uncontrollable behaviors, rather than on adopting a more holistic view of mental health that puts mental health preservation on the same footing as preserving our physical health.

Just as we are encouraged to undertake regular doctor visits and physicals to check indicators such as our blood pressure, glucose level and body mass, mental health checks ought to become a standard element of health screenings throughout all stages of life.

Practitioners can glean valuable healthcare insights through targeted observation, asking their patients questions about how they are feeling emotionally, their chronic state of mind, and how they are coping with life’s stressors.

Just as chronic physical illnesses have a higher chance of positive outcomes, with early detection and appropriate management, the same can hold true for mental illnesses whose story does not have to end with a lifetime of suffering, or with harm to self or others.

The priority countries place on mental health can be seen in their annual budgets.

The current reporting mechanism for The Bahamas’ fiscal budget does not enable the public to ascertain the amount budgeted for mental health throughout the country.

The World Health Organization’s Mental Health Atlas 2017 for The Bahamas indicated a status of “none or not reported” for the majority of categories in its country profile, including government’s expenditure on mental health as a percentage of its total health expenditure.

Other categories for which information was unavailable in the country profile were human resources for mental health; the mental health workforce per capita; outpatient facilities for children and adolescents; admissions and follow-ups at mental hospitals; suicide prevention strategies; and other programs that target mental health promotion and prevention.

An example of the extent to which mental health resources are not sufficiently prioritized, is in the existence of a protracted moratorium on admissions at Sandilands Rehabilitation Centre in response to the COVID pandemic.

When questioned last month on the matter, Dr. Darville said, “I would have to speak to the administrator because I really do not know the capacity and what the bed arrangements presently are at the facility, but it is a concern because there are people out there who need services at Sandilands Rehabilitation Centre.”

When an individual who requires mental health admission is denied this level of emergency care, he or she is invariably subjected to greater risk of self-inflicted injury, causing injury to others, or being harmed by those who perceive the actions of the sufferer as a threat or a nuisance.

Just as an individual suffering from a health emergency such as heart attack or stroke would not be expected to remain at home during the pandemic, those in mental crisis, who require admission to receive necessary care, ought not be forced to potentially deteriorate without it.

The mental health of Bahamians is just as critical to national stability as their physical health.

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