Discussing Some of the Most Vulnerable: Mental Illness in Guyana

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GUYANA — Neuropsychiatric disorders, or mental illnesses, are the largest contributor to the burden of disease in Guyana. Even with the high degree of risk for infectious disease, the bearing of these disorders on the burden of disease is greater than HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria combined.

In Guyana, a small northern South American nation with a population of 750,000, mental illness affects nearly 25 percent of the population. With 44.2 suicides per 100,000 people, Guyana has the highest suicide rate in the world.

Women, the unemployed and young adults are the most vulnerable, accounting for more than 60 percent of people with mental illness in Guyana. In terms of suicide, young adults are the highest risk group; in 2012, suicide was the leading cause of death among Guyanese citizens aged 15 to 24.

Though mental illness constitutes more of a public threat than physical disorders do in Guyana, mental health care has been given low priority in public health. Insufficient funding, a limited number of mental health care facilities and specialized mental health professionals, stigma and outdated legislation offer partial explanations for negative mental health outcomes in Guyana.

Just one percent of the nation’s health budget is allocated toward mental healthcare services. In 2008, Guyana’s mental health service system consisted of one psychiatric hospital, three full-time psychiatrists and two outpatient mental health facilities. An assessment of Guyana’s mental health system indicates that services are unavailable in several regions and inaccessible to most of the population.

Sociocultural factors are also associated with negative mental health outcomes. In Guyana, there is a cultural tendency to confuse symptoms of mental illness with witchcraft. Because of the stigma and discrimination linked to mental illness in Guyanese communities, two-thirds of people with mental illness prefer to suffer in silence rather than seek out mental health care services.

The legal framework governing mental health services, the 1930 Mental Hospital Ordinance,”fails to promote and protect the human rights and dignity of individuals living with mental illnesses,” says New York attorney and founder of the Guyana-based Autar Consultancy Firm, Anthony Autar.

Without elements of protection for people with mental illness, the 1930 Mental Hospital Ordinance neglects to address the forms of inequality that constrain people’s ability to seek mental health care and the social risks and negative consequences associated with having a mental illness in Guyana.

Recently, increased attention has been given to suicide prevention and mental health services in Guyana. While sociocultural barriers continue to deter people from seeking and receiving mental health treatment, new initiatives have been designed by the Guyanese government and other organizations to increase awareness of mental illness and address the gaps in the nation’s mental health system.

In July 2017, Guyana plans to release the National Self-Harm Surveillance, a self-harm and depression reduction project intent on detecting and treating the early signs of suicidal behavior. With the addition of the National Self-Harm Surveillance, Guyana’s Mental Health Unit expects to see a continuous decline in suicide prevalence.

With programs such as these, decreasing mental illness in Guyana is a real possibility.

Gabrielle Doran

Photo: Flickr

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About Author

Gabrielle Doran

Gabrielle lives in New York, NY. Her academic interests include philosophy. Gabriellet ran on Amherst’s cross-country and track & field teams and has an identical twin sister.

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