The hands-on approach by the new Minister of Public Health to improve the health sector is welcomed by most Guyanese. It is a very timely initiative, but the Ministry should pay more attention to people with mental illness. Health specialists should be trained to make clinical evaluations and identify red flags of patients with mental illness. These patients should be treated in private at a hospital or health clinic setting in order to prevent the stigmatization that the issue has attracted especially with populations such as the homeless.
In Guyana, mental illness or neurological disorders affect nearly one in four people, with women, the unemployed and young adults accounting for over 60 percent. Less than 10 percent are being treated and 4 in 10 have attempted suicide.
In the United States and other developed countries mental illness affects one in five persons. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), approximately 650 million people currently suffer from such illness, thus placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health worldwide.
Mental illness is a structural-functional disorder of the brain that inhibits one’s ability to cope with life, to manage the everyday issues and to choose correct solution to personal problems. Mental illness such as depression and anxiety affects people to think rationally and to adhere to the conventional behavioral standards.
Mental illness is not a personal failure, and if it is, the failure is to be found in the way society has responded and treated people with mental and brain disorders. Although treatment is available, yet nearly two-thirds of people in the country with a known mental disorder do not seek medical help because of stigma and discrimination from the public.
The government as well as society must break this vicious cycle of stigmatization against people with mental illness. The administration has to make strategic decisions and choices in order to bring about positive changes in the acceptance and treatment of people with mental illness. It should move away from treatment at the mental health institutions and towards community health care. It should integrate mental health care into primary health care and the general health care system.
Data from the WHO shows that most mental and behavioral disorders can be successfully treated, despite the chronic and long-term nature of some of them. The WHO has provided clear guidelines of how to treat people with mental illness, but responsibility for action lies with the government. Its failure to act would show a lack of commitment.
It was also stated that with the proper treatment, people suffering from mental illness can live productive lives and be a vital part of their communities. However, in Guyana, less than one percent of the total health budget is allocated to cure mental illness and there is less than one hospital bed reserved for mental illness per 10,000 people. The government should take stock of the situation, because mental illness figures are among the leading causes of disease and disability in the country.
In most cases, people who suffer from mental illness are often poor, both in terms of the risk in having a mental disorder and the lack of access to proper medical treatment. In Guyana, the poor are constantly exposed to severely stressful events, dangerous living conditions, exploitation, and poor health in general—all of which have contributed to mentally illness in some form. The lack of access to affordable treatment makes the course of mental illness more severe and debilitating, leading to a vicious circle of mental health disorders that are rarely broken.
Studies have shown that apart from medications, mental conditions in some cases may be improved by lifestyle changes such as in diet/nutrition, healthy eating, more exercise, spending more time with loved ones and friends and yoga exercises.
No matter what its resource constraints are, the government should take a comprehensive approach and do something to improve the mental condition of its people. It would require dedication by the government and all stakeholders to take the necessary steps. But it must be done to help the marginalized.
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