Mental health mess
Jamaican children bemoan lack of support for those facing massive challenges
ABEL...if 83 per cent are telling us that they don't know where to get help, then it is telling us that we obviously have to listen to them more (Photo: Karl Mclarty)

A clarion call has come from the vast majority of respondents to a just-conducted U-Report — done by the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) — for more support to be provided to Jamaican children facing mental health challenges.

And for Professor Wendel Abel, consultant psychiatrist at The University of the West Indies (UWI), Mona, there is no surprise in the numbers.

The poll, which was conducted by UNICEF in association with the Jamaica Observer to mark Child Month 2023, found that 83 per cent of the 214 respondents believe Jamaica is short of proper support structures for children who face mental health challenges.

"Let's not question the poll numbers; listen to our children. Let's not make them voiceless, and if 83 per cent are telling us that they don't know where to get help then it is telling us that we obviously have to listen to them more," Abel told the Observer.

"Maybe sometimes we are talking as adults and we are not talking in language that they will understand, or we are using the media to communicate to them that they don't listen to… So we have old people, using old media, to communicate to young people.

"We are using the wrong message, the wrong messenger, or the wrong medium so we have to make sure that we are getting our messages out there," added Abel who agreed that more should be done to help children facing mental health challenges.

That call was underscored by several of the respondents to the U-Report poll as they pointed to the difficulties Jamaican children facing mental health challenges endure as they seek support.

"Mental health is a serious issue that affects all, but it is being ignored in Jamaica. Often times youth, and even adults, commit suicide or go into depression due to [a] lack of support system, or [the] Jamaican saying: 'Man wah bawl weak,' " said one respondent from Clarendon.

"This issue causes our youth to deviate as they feel as if they can better rely on guns, drugs, and music to soothe their mentality when it [actually] tends to destroy them more. There needs to be put in place a proper mental health system were persons can talk without being judged, and feel supported," added the Clarendon youngster.

A 14-year-old girl from the Corporate Area echoed that position.

"I think that there needs to be more resources to help those with mental health issues, and also more light shone on the fact that social media is a highly edited and romanticised version of someone's life. A greater emphasis needs to be placed on reducing the stigma around mental health in Jamaica because people, especially older Jamaicans, don't believe that it is a legitimate issue," said the teenager.

According to the youth arm of Healthy Caribbean Coalition, mental health has been long recognised as an integral element of overall health and as a basic and fundamental right. However, its limited prioritisation and promotion in national health agendas or policies through the necessary financial and human resources sends a contradictory message.

That position found agreement with several respondents to the U-Report poll who charged that mental health issues are a major problem in Jamaica.

"As Jamaicans we need to understand that both physical and mental health [are] priorities. By Jamaicans promoting the fact that obesity is bad, which we all understand it is, it makes obese children get picked on because it is known that something is wrong with them; they are looked down on.

"This has caused children to have self-confidence issues, develop eating disorders, and these affect their day-to-day lives. While promoting how good it is to lose weight, also promote that just trying is enough — and find healthy ways to do it," said a 14-year-old from St Mary.

"Tell them that if they ever develop confidence issues because of their weight and they need help, to go to the guidance counsellor or whoever is in charge of that area. There is a difference between physically and mentally happy, and because of some of these promotions and advertisements people are thinking more about their bodies and less about how their mental state is just as important as their physical state," added the 14-year-old as she joined the call for more support systems.

For Abel, the sad fact is that there is a shortage of support systems for children with mental health challenges.

"The public health system is overcrowded. As it exists now, if you want to get an appointment in the public health system as a young person it can take up to six months. We keep fooling ourselves that the system is efficient and adequate — it is not," said Abel as he noted, however, that in emergency cases children with mental health challenges will be seen quickly in the public health sector. "But for a routine counselling session, that is almost non-existent in the public sector," added Abel as he pointed out that the majority of the public health facilities for mental health support related to children is concentrated in the Corporate Area, with rural Jamaica mostly left out.

In the meantime, respondents to the UNICEF U-Report poll called for a mental health day for high school students. They also suggested "free mental health care from licensed therapists who don't force prayer as the answer to all problems", and that justices of the peace be trained as mental health counsellors for communities.

BY ARTHUR HALL Editor-at-Large

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