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Dr Longmore's short-term memory

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

We don't hear too often from Government Senator Dr Sapphire Longmore. But in the Senate last Thursday, she spoke of something we need to be hearing a lot more of as a nation — the troubling issue of mental illness, which is still largely shrouded in secrecy and embalmed in stigmatisation.

Dr Longmore, in her contribution to the State of the Nation debate, encouraged Jamaicans to be more compassionate towards mentally ill people by trying to help them rather than mistreating or shunning them.

There is no good health without good mental health, the senator, who is also a psychiatrist, reasoned, and she chastised Jamaicans about the inappropriate ways in which they react to mentally ill people, in one case tying a man to a fence on the roadside to restrain him.

Dr Longmore noted that many people are diagnosed with and suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder, which are mental health issues, but there is no specific programme targeting these. She is right.

She called for the implementation of strategic plans for mental health which were initially presented in 1997, and came up again in 2006, including an increase in the number of community health aides and mental health officers.

Senator Longmore's long-term memory seems sharper than her short-term memory. Only last year, the Ministry of Health and Wellness launched a new campaign dubbed 'Speak Up, Speak Now' that provided a platform from which people could share their stories of mental illness.

At the time, the ministry said the campaign would seek to raise awareness about mental illness and the ways in which people were affected, stimulate a national conversation on mental health in Jamaica, and promote behaviour change to end the stigma against individuals living with mental illness.

“We want Jamaicans to be unafraid and unapologetic about talking about mental illness because we believe it is one of the first steps to ending this stigma,” the ministry said, noting that the average Jamaican believes that mental illness means hopeless 'mad people' who should be abandoned or locked up.

Since the launch of the campaign, we have heard precious little about it. One can only hope that it is not another case of a slick public relations event from which someone has already eaten a food and which has been long forgotten. Dr Longmore should look into that.

The figures in the most recent survey we saw are brutal: Four of every 10 Jamaicans at some point in their lives will suffer from some form of mental illness, whether anxiety, depression, schizophrenia or other issues, it said.

In addition, one in every five young people suffered from mental illness. In Jamaica, the highest overall prevalence of depression was in the 15 to 24 years, 25 to 34 years and over 75 years age groups.

Also, between 45 and 55 people committed suicide each year because of mental illness. As we recall, the campaign included a Mental Health and Suicide Prevention Helpline – 888 NEW LIFE (639-5433) which was to have been manned on a 24-hour basis by professional psychologists.

Further, 14 new buses were handed over to the health regions to assist with community mental health service delivery and response.

It would be nice to get an update, Dr Longmore.