LIVERPOOL, United Kingdom — Jamaica is the third-largest island in the Caribbean and has a population of 2.8 million people. In recent years, the island has achieved notable progress on key survival indicators, such as significant improvements in the under-5 mortality rate.
But beyond its vast topography of mountains, rainforests and reef-lined beaches, a mental health crisis lurks beneath the surface. A number of challenges continue to hamper the Government’s efforts to ensure access to the highest standard of health, particularly for the island’s children.
Social and economic factors such as entrenched income inequities, outdated health systems, policies that do not prioritize children and harmful social and gender norms make Jamaica children vulnerable to health issues as they grow across the life cycle.
Of these health complications, mental illness is a significant challenge faced by the people of Jamaica. The development of mental telehealth services is just one example of how technological developments can help tackle the mental health crisis in developing nations.
Young People and Mental Health
Many young children and adolescents suffer from mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts and PTSD. Jamaican youth may be predisposed to these conditions or develop symptoms as a result of the social and financial anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic left many young people isolated from their friends and family which has had a detrimental impact on their mental health. Unfortunately, many young people resorted to substance use to deal with the emotional turmoil of isolation.
Dr Ganesh Shetty, a youth psychiatrist told UNICEF that “over 800,000 children live in Jamaica, and even taking a conservative figure of 15%, nearly 120,000 of them may have a mental disorder and 5% or 40,000 of them may be suffering from a severe mental disorder.”
Suicide is a severe problem facing Jamaican youth with figures showing that 60% of attempted suicides in Jamaica were committed by young people under the age of 24. With these statistics in mind, the Jamaican government and international organizations such as UNICEF are committed to tackling the problem through new and innovative solutions.
Mental Telehealth Services
UNICEF has been at the forefront of the mental health crisis in Jamaica, recently supplying 50 mobile phones to children through the Guidance and Counselling Unit of the MOEYI to the Ministry of Health and Wellness. These mobile phones have allowed children to access online counseling via Child Guidance Clinics that span the island.
Through this initiative, the number of children who have access to mental telehealth services has increased by about 20% in Kingston and St Andrew. Supported by online services such as WhatsApp, Zoom, Skype and Google Meet, mental telehealth services can support young people living in remote areas, or even those who simply cannot afford the transportation costs involved in accessing in-person mental health clinics.
More recently in 2022, UNICEF introduced a new chatline called U-Matter which is operated by counselors who have volunteered with the Jamaican Psychological Society and are trained through the Caribbean Child Development Centre (CCDC). The service is free of charge and students and young people between the ages of 16 and 24 can access it any time of the day.
Offering anonymity and confidentiality, the service has successfully operated 2,000 counseling sessions since it was introduced. The initiative uses mobile messaging to access young people who are struggling with their mental health, offering them greater flexibility and providing a space to talk that is free of judgment or shame.
Destigmatizing Mental Health
Going forward, Jamaica’s Ministry of Health and Wellness has pledged to ensure the de-stigmatization of mental illness. Launched by portfolio Minister, Dr. the Hon. Christopher Tufton in October 2019, its “Speak Up, Speak Now” campaign is encouraging young Jamaicans to speak freely about mental illness and seeks to educate the public about mental health.
The launch of the campaign corresponded with World Mental Health Day 2019 and has included branding and promotion, public awareness and education, documentation and distribution of personal stories and media outreach and sensitization.
Overall, the Jamaican government’s mental health strategy and the work of organizations such as UNICEF are clear examples of how investments in technology can help tackle the mental health crisis in Jamaica by increasing the geographical reach of mental health services, providing free, anonymous and confidential advice and by de-stigmatizing mental illness.
– Tatum Richards