U-Matter, the chat service launched in March this year as a lifeline to youth ravaged by the novel coronavirus pandemic, has revealed that a number are struggling with suicidal ideation, depression, anxiety, loneliness, lack of support, and performance anxiety.
The text line, which was developed by the Ministry of Health and Wellness, in conjunction with The University of the West Indies and the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF), was the first of its kind in Jamaica at the time it was launched. U-Matter is offered through UNICEF's U-Report Jamaica platform, whereby youth aged 16 to 24 can access one-on-one support, referrals, and information from trained counsellors about any mental health concern they may have using WhatsApp, text, or Facebook free of cost, 24 hours, seven days per week by texting the word SUPPORT to 876-838-4897 or messaging U-Report Jamaica via Facebook. Users are anonymous, and defining details are held in confidence.
Director of child and adolescent mental health in the Ministry of Health and Wellness Dr Judith Leiba, in an interview with the Jamaica Observer, said statistics so far gathered indicate that Jamaican children are "battling with anguish on an emotional plane".
"What it is saying is that our children are under emotional distress, and we certainly have to acknowledge that COVID has been a stressor for everybody. COVID, in terms of physical illness, affected our older population but emotionally, mentally and psychologically, it's our teenagers and maybe the pre-adolescents from age 10 who have been affected most," she told the Observer.
She said other issues shared by users surround unemployment, financial and housing assistance, parenting support, and child behaviour management.
A report containing figures for the chatline so far reveal that between March 22 and July 19 this year a total 694 contact sessions opened and closed.
"This doesn't necessarily mean 694 different persons, it means somebody (messaged), they have a matter and when it is dealt with, that's when the (session) closes," Dr Leiba explained. She said a gender breakdown of the users revealed that 66 per cent were females, 32.5 per cent males and 1.5 per cent non-binary.
The majority of the cries for help, she said, are placed between 11:00 pm and midnight on any given day , with 26 per cent of messages coming in on a Tuesday, 16 per cent on Mondays and Wednesdays, Fridays 14 per cent, and Saturdays and Sundays 10 per cent. The ratio of female to male users, Dr Leiba said, is 2:1, an encouraging sign to health officials.
"That's one male to every two females. Our males don't have good help-seeking behaviours, so we are particularly glad that they feel the helpline is a safe place they can reach out to. Normally you think males would not call a helpline, but thank God they reach out," the director of child and adolescent mental health stated.
In the meantime, she said health officials will be probing deeper to see the reason youth are contemplating suicide, although noting that Jamaica's suicide rate remains one of the lowest globally.
"A lot of teenagers have suicidal ideation, but it is fleeting. Our suicide rate in Jamaica is relatively low. Compared to the rest of the world we hover around two per 100,000," Dr Leiba pointed out.
She, in the meantime, noted that the fact that youth are toying with the idea of suicide indicates "emotional distress and inability to deal with painful, hurtful feelings and destructive feelings and thoughts".
She said the U-Matter chatline, in addition to a helpline for adults developed by the ministry before the pandemic and other initiatives, signal that officials have acknowledged the struggles.
"We have been putting these resources in place because we have to recognise that our child and adolescent and other mental health services are not sufficient, and we also recognise that a lot of those who are in distress, if they get support at the time when they are distressed, we can avert a catastrophe. So that is when these helplines and text lines come into play," she noted.
Users of the U-Matter service have, in the meantime, been passed on to the Ministry of Health's regular and mental health clinics, child guidance clinics islandwide, Family Life Ministries, Jamaica Mental Health Advocacy Network, Rise Life Management, and the Safe Spot Helpline.
Referrals have also been made to the Ministry of Labour and Social Security's Programme of Advancement Through Health and Education, employment agencies, Ministry of Education, Poor Relief Department, Food For the Poor, HEART/NSTA Trust, Child Protection and Family Services Agency, the Women's Centre of Jamaica, Eve for Life, and the National Family Planning Board.