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- by Wil A Campbell

Take a mental snapshot of the 3 persons closest to you. Now, photo shop yourself into the picture. You should now have 4 persons in your mental photograph. And according to the most recent estimates from the WHO and the Ministry of Health, it is very likely that at least one of the individuals in that picture has a mental disorder.  That individual could very well be YOU.

Notice, I did not say that that person is mad. I said they might be experiencing a mental illness.

“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.”

According to the Public Health report quoted above, the poor in Guyana 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 is rarely broken. However, mental disorders are by no means confined to those living below the poverty line.

So the quality of life of about a quarter of our population is adversely affected by mental illness. This figure is significantly higher than the global average. Is it that Guyanese are more predisposed to mental illness than people in other parts of the world? Hardly! Then why are we falling prey to mental illness at a higher rate? 

There are two reasons, really: Denial and Ignorance!

As a country, we have chosen to assume a closed-minded approach to mental health. We are fine with being physically sick; some of us wear our diagnoses of diabetes and hypertension like badges of honour even using these to our advantage sometimes. But the moment our brain ceases to function optimally, we either pretend it isn’t happening, mask it with drugs or alcohol, hide it from our friends and family, or we blame it on evil spirits or obeah. Then we spend obscene amounts of money seeking relief from spiritual leaders…. and sometimes, questionable “spiritual practitioners” some of whom are quite frankly speaking, con-artists. Many of us are familiar with the recent reports of fake “pandits” who fleeced scores of Guyanese, earning themselves millions of dollars before fleeing the country.

When your child has an asthma attack, you don’t take her to the pastor and when your car develops mechanical problem you don’t take it to the priest, neither do you call the pandit to refurbish the back step when it becomes a shaky. Instead, you refer the problem to a relevant and competent professional. You might say a prayer or ask your Imam to say prayer for you but you also take concrete action to have an expert remedy the situation. Similarly, mental health challenges must be referred to mental health professionals. Acknowledging the problem and seeking appropriate relief is the opposite of denial and it will yield positive results.

Many of us do not know that mental illness is rooted in physiological malfunction. It 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 solutions to personal problems. Mental illness (including depression and anxiety ) affects a person’s ability to think rationally and to adhere to conventional behavioral standards.

In other words, these disorders are in fact, medical challenges which affect the way the brain functions and in turn influence our feelings, our emotions and our behaviour. Many of the “mad people” we see roaming the streets, muttering to themselves or engaging in irrational behaviours could in fact, live normal functioning lives and be vital contributors to their communities, if they could have been exposed to competent psychological or psychiatric interventions.

But not knowing is killing us, literally! Many lock away their children when they discover that they lack the capacity for normal cognitive functioning. We are unaware that seeking treatment could in many cases restore full functioning or, at the very least, improve the quality of life of our loved ones.

We allow ourselves to believe that mental health is a personal failure, or that to acknowledge the existence mental health challenges in our families is tantamount to accepting a diminished societal status.

In many developed countries, people go to a primary health care facility seeking a mental health check-up every year, the same way some of us go to our family health care practitioner to get a medical check-up. Those people are aware that, as is the case for other forms of disorders, early detection and treatment significantly improve the likelihood of complete recovery.

Some of us do not know that this kind of help is available, and that to access such services is normal and acceptable and wise. So we accept our fate and hide behind fake smiles, and facades of sanity, and illusion of control for as long as we can until something blows up.

But denial is dangerous and ignorance is deadly AND unnecessary. Information is readily available and help is accessible. And those among us who are practitioners or professors or even students of the behavioural and neurological sciences must lead a frontal assault against the ignorance and stigma that enshroud mental illness and rob our country of the contribution of thousands of citizens. 

We must empower the general public and arm them with the knowledge that it is ok to not be ok, so long as you seek the necessary interventions to remedy the situation. That like medical ailments, mental disorders are a fact of life and not indicators of personal failure. That these should not detract from our sense of personal or collective worth. That it is nothing to be ashamed of.

Let us make it OK to talk about the fact that we don’t always feel like getting out of bed in the mornings; and that we sometimes feel useless and hopeless and lonely; or that were are constantly afraid even though there is no clear and present danger to justify that fear; or that we sometimes hear “voices in our heads”; or that we often experience almost irresistible urges to take our own lives or that we regularly consume mind altering substances and we can’t stop no matter how hard we try. 

Let’s make it alright and acceptable to talk about mental illness.  We cannot afford not to! It is costing us too many friends, too many relatives, too many livelihoods…too many lives.

We need to open our minds to new ways of dealing with mental illness. We can no longer afford to suffer in silence. This silence is weakness, not strength! Seeking help is showing strength!

Let us eliminate the stigma. The very existence of our nation depends on it!

About The Writer

Wil A Campbell lectures in psychology in the Faculty of Education and Humanities and the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Guyana. He is a Marriage and Family Therapist and seminar facilitator. In his spare time he focuses on faith, family and food. Read more about him here