Esteemed Psychiatrist Dr. Frank Beckles is a ‘Special Person’
Pull Quote: “I listen to my patients and many times I have to reassure them that visiting a psychiatrist does not mean that you are mad. Mental illness is a condition that must be addressed as urgently as any physical injuries. The time for stigmatising persons with such needs should be left in the past. ”
By Sharmain Grainger
In summary, Dr Frank Beckles can be described as a simple and humble person who lives life each day
with absolutely no regrets and fully embraces the philosophical notion to “live and let live.” This is perhaps one of the reasons that his approach to his profession over the years has been one of ease and a fervent desire to ensure that his patients understand that it is perfectly normal to seek mental health services.
Dr Beckles has for more than a decade been offering his expertise in this part of the world; he is one of two well known qualified and registered psychiatric doctors in Guyana. Psychiatrists have been referred to by some as a dying breed of health professionals in these parts, although there are reports of some who practice though they are not qualified.
Interesting to note is that while he is not a born Guyanese, the renowned psychiatrist has, since 1997, opted to render his service locally rather than doing so in greener pastures where compensation would, by far, be more lucrative.
Born Frank Neville Beckles on September 18, 1934, in Christ Church, Barbados, to parents Winslow and Ines Beckles, he was the sixth of seven children. His parents, now deceased, were both Guyanese – his mother a home-maker and his father a Minister of Religion, attached to the AME Church.
Dr Beckles revealed that in the early 1930s, even before his birth, his father’s Ministerial profession saw him being posted, with his family, to Barbados.
He recounted that as a youngster he attended the St Giles Boy School. In 1945 his father was again forced to relocate – this time it was to the United States, thus the family could not have immediately followed.
The next best thing was for his mother to pack up with her children and return to Guyana. “We returned to New Amsterdam, where my mother had family…already my bigger brother and sister had settled there with our grandmother.”
The young Frank was soon enrolled in the Mission Chapel Primary School and would continue there until he completed the school leaving examination. He went on to the privately-run Parkinson’s High School to the point of Junior Cambridge, after which he grooved into his first working experience.
As a sales clerk at Wreford’s Hardware, a general store owned by a British National, Frank was a hard worker in his attempt to earn an income to help contribute to his relatively poor household. “We were poor, to say the least, so me and my siblings had to start working as soon as it was possible,” he reflected.
It was during his stint at the hardware store that he recalled being approached by a friend who mentioned the possibility of him joining the teaching profession.
“He just came into the store and asked me if I wanted to be a teacher. Of course I said why not…and he told me all I needed to do.”
Frank would soon introduce himself to the headmaster of the Cotton Tree Government School and by the beginning of 1952 he was a Pupil Teacher. He remained at the Government School for approximately one year before seeking a transfer to Cumberland Methodist School. He left the latter school in 1955 for the United States in response to an invitation from his father.
His arrival there would soon see him taking up employment at the first job he landed, at a School Uniform Packaging Plant.
“When you got there (United States) you had to take whatever job you could and so what I basically did was offload trucks and take packages to the floor where the uniforms were packed.”
He remained there for a mere three months, as he was able to secure a job with the United Nations as a clerk. This would last until 1957 when he was drafted into the US Army.
During his stint in the Army, Frank worked as a technician to an ophthalmologist. He was soon introduced to the ways of a laboratory technician with the assistance of a friend, having been informed that this was a lucrative area to follow.
It was while he was in the military, Frank, a dashing young man in his early 30s, met and became friendly with one of his sister’s girlfriends. The two would a few years later be joined in holy matrimony, a union which produced three children – two boys and one girl.
After 21 months in the Army, Frank was allowed to leave the military in pursuit of furthering his education. He first attended the George Washington University where he completed a Bachelor’s of Science in Zoology. He was subsequently channelled into medicine. But according to him “I didn’t have any calling of such.” Nevertheless he believes that he always had a subtle passion for the field.
His entry into the field of medicine was at first overshadowed by doubt and questions of whether he was really ready for that arena. He recalled that it was a friend who literally rescued him from this phase of uncertainty.
“My friend had become a Dentist and he pretty much took the same course that I did…so we were talking about what I would do next, since I was sure I wasn’t adequately prepared for medicine…He simply told me ‘If I can do it, you can do it too’.”
That was enough encouragement to send him to apply to Howard University School of Medicine where he was soon accepted. Completion of his medical programme saw him undertaking his internship at the Public Health Service System of Hospitals in Baltimore.
At the time, he and his growing family were living in Washington D.C., and as such he was tasked with a one-hour commute every day. He remembers his internship as being very good as it entailed general rotation and so “I was being involved in the various areas of medicine…I found it very interesting.”
Hoping to spread his wings as a physician, the young doctor, driven by ambition, decided to join the Peace Corps. This move was spurred by his interest in international medicine and an underlying passion to return to the West Indies.
“I somehow wanted to give back something, but there were many interventions occurring in between, so I didn’t get back for quite a while.” Instead of being recruited as a physician, as he had expected, Dr Beckles was retained by the Peace Corps as an administrator and shuttled off, with his family, to Gabon, a State in West Central Africa, to manage the affairs of the American Volunteer Programme.
His stay there would last only six months as the authorities of the State soon became suspicious of foreigners, forcing them all to leave. The Peace Corps would then ask Dr Beckles to head to Niger, another West African locale. “The experience there was fantastic…Niger was really all desert with a river running through it and it was captivating,” he fondly reminisced.
Unable to shake his desire to practice medicine, after two memorable years in Niger, he returned to the United States, leaving the Peace Corps to be the practicing physician he had envisaged. He started off rendering outpatient services at the very hospital he completed his internship, in Baltimore. By this time he and his wife made the decision to separate, with their children remaining in the care of his wife in Washington.
Absorbed in his profession, he recalled that the first week he returned to the hospital, he was introduced to Bio-Feedback and Self Regulation, which in simple terms, relate to the regulating of one’s physiology. He was tasked with further developing this approach having taken over from another doctor, even as he managed the outpatient department.
His involvement in the Self Regulation Programme would soon draw his interest to the area of psychiatry, so much so that by his third year at Baltimore, he decided to further his studies at the University of Maryland’s Institute of Psychiatry and Human Behaviour. “Working in general practice I found that there were many problems that my staff were baffled by and I was fascinated by the role the mind played in those baffling illnesses, and that is what drove me towards psychiatry.”
His studies in psychiatry commenced in the 1970s and by 1981 he was a full-fledged psychiatrist. He retired in 1988, but decided to engage a private practice soon after. Still burdened by the need to give back to the Caribbean, he left for Barbados in 1991 with the intention of practicing and settling there. However, he soon found that there was a need for mental health expertise in Guyana and soon introduced his practice here as well. At first he travelled back and forth, visiting once every month to meet with his growing clientele. By 1997 he was able to set up an office in Guyana and has since started a steady private practice here.
Although his practice has not been spared from economical challenges, Dr Beckles noted that he has chosen to remain here because of his love for Guyana.
“It is not cheap living in Guyana any more, but I simply love Guyana, and offering my skills here. Guyana has always and will always be my home… that can never change,” he passionately asserted. He disclosed that presently there are a sufficient number of people accessing his psychiatric service located at 302 Church Street, Queenstown, Georgetown, to make it economically feasible for him to stay without a second thought.
Although he lives today with no regrets, as according to him “life is too short to have regrets”, he does reflect on a time in his life when his expertise could have been used to save someone very close. He lost both of his sons when they were young adults – the second of the two he would learn, only after his demise, was perhaps bipolar.
Also known as manic-depressive disorder, Bipolar Disorder is a psychiatric diagnosis that describes a category of mood disorders defined by the presence of one or more episodes of abnormally elevated energy levels, cognition, and mood with or without one or more depressive episodes.
Dr. Beckles reflected that since he was not living with his son on a day-to-day basis, he was oblivious to his condition, and no one had seen it fit to bring it to his attention until after he (his son) took his own life.
The highly accomplished Dr Beckles said that he is ready and willing to pass on his wide psychiatric knowledge, in the hope that persons in the society are not forced to suffer from mental illness. With a keen listening ear he is able to discern the best way to help address his patients’ mental health needs.
“I listen to my patients and many times I have to reassure them that visiting a psychiatrist does not mean that you are mad. Mental illness is a condition that must be addressed as urgently as any physical injuries. The time for stigmatising persons with such needs should be left in the past. ”
As such, he is among the few advocates calling for more awareness of mental illness and the need to plug more resources to ensure that it is adequately addressed.
Dr Beckles’ understanding of mental illness is so extensive that he has been duly rewarded with a number of accolades and is from time to time asked to render his serve at private facilities including the privately-operated St Joseph Mercy and Davis Memorial Hospitals.
His dedicated and unwavering support to the area of mental health has been recognised as substantial which is the primary reason he has been chosen as this week’s ‘Special Person’.