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Key populations in the mental health debate

BY Lateefah Smellie

Thursday, October 18, 2018

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With the close of International Mental Health Week 2018 I am glad that we have been engaging valuable public discourse on these vital issues. As Health Minister Christopher Tufton said last Sunday, “There is no good health without mental health.” Thus, it is definitely due time for us to challenge the stigmas in our society surrounding mental health and raise awareness of these very prevalent issues.

In fact, a recent study revealed that as much of 40 per cent of Jamaicans fit the criteria to be diagnosed with depression. While this, in itself, is alarming, it is much more unsettling when we consider that the majority of visits to patient clinics regarding mental health in Jamaica are specific to schizophrenia.

While I applaud the proposed strategies for intervention, I would like to implore the Government and general citizenry to give special credence to key populations such as the LGBTQ community, homeless youth, people living with disabilities, and people living with HIV, among others, with specific regard to the youth division of these groups.

Our youth, being at a very impressionable phase in their development are especially at risk, and numerous studies hint at these issues maturing into more detrimental issues such as suicidal notions. Of 1,090 respondents to a U-Report poll on youth mental health and suicide, 53 per cent of respondents indicated that they have considered suicide and 31 per cent said that they have attempted suicide. This is ample reason for us to not only be more mindful of our national mental health context but to ensure that all groups of society are equitably regarded.

Stigma and discrimination

The Jamaican society is plagued with stigma and there are many public displays of discrimination towards various key populations, with incidents occurring even at the institutional level. A 2013 report by UNAIDS and JN+ revealed that 38 per cent of people living with HIV (PLHIV) experience some amount of discrimination. These and other marginalised groups also live in fear of physical harm and may be subjected to these depressors on a daily basis. This kind of sustained exposure to stressful situations invariably contributes to the deterioration of the individual's mental health.

High levels of stigma and discrimination not only increase the likelihood of depression and other mental health issues, but they are also very influential to the development of positive health-seeking behaviours, reducing the willingness of individuals to talk about the issues affecting them or to access available health services. We cannot continue to neglect the augmented effects of these issues on these minorities and marginalised groups in society.

Health care

One key component in addressing these issues is the continuous improvement of health care services. With regards to continuous training, Jamaica has always had yearly refresher mental health training for mental health nurses and practitioners. However, we must ensure that these training sessions or refreshers are accompanied with sensitisation sessions around the accommodation of key population groups. Unless we eliminate the current discriminatory practices towards these groups we will not be able to encourage positive mental health-seeking behaviours among these groups.

It starts with us

Any solution to a national problem is never independently dependent on government intervention. It is important that we realise our roles as Jamaicans in the advancement of our country. I challenge us to treats each other as we would want to be treated.

It is time for us to look beyond barbaric practices and unjust propensity. Mental health matters, and it is essential for individuals, regardless of their physical capabilities, race, gender, or socio-economic status. The journey to a better Jamaica must be a collaborative effort between Government and citizens if we are truly to realise our goals. How will you play your part?

Lateefah Smellie is a member of the Jamaica Youth Advocacy Network (JYAN). Send comments to the Observer or lateefah.smellie@gmail.com.

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