OECS Health officials at a meeting at the Fort Young Hotel
OECS Health officials at a meeting at the Fort Young Hotel

By Rebecca Theodore

Beyond the economic and political blockades experienced by small-island states, lies a silent epidemic called mental health. It is a cursed and shameful disease marked by poverty and stigma. Mental illness is now morphed into a disease of pain and exclusion, and is the most misconstrued and ill-treated disease in the Caribbean.

Whereas studies suggest that mental health conditions in the Caribbean are very rampant and scary because only few people can acknowledge that they have a problem, or have the necessary conditions to seek medical help; sufferers of mental illness, are not only prisoners of misconception and alienation, but also of poverty, and discrimination.

Statistics confirm that 60 percent of mental health patients in the Caribbean are less likely to have received mental-health treatment or counseling. Poverty, instability, and discrimination are the leading risk for depression. Discriminatory attitudes and behaviors are preventing people from speaking out from fear of being labeled as crazy. Misconstructions and stereotypes are leading to a perception that mental illness is more likely to pose a risk of violent behavior and, as a result, sufferers continue to ache in silence.

Perhaps more striking is the fact that the number of people with mental disorders in the Caribbean is projected to increase by more than 50% by 2020, mainly due to an increasing ageing population, the distressing effects of climate change, economic and social decline, and a polluted political environment. The devastating truth is that more than 80% of these people will have no access to mental health care. Moreover, thousands of Caribbean people are presently suffering from a mental-health ailment and do not get the treatment they need to live a full and creative life.

And for this, policy makers must now recognize mental health as a precedence in a situation where the rapidly changing social, political, and economic profiles of the Caribbean demand new studies for advancement and progress.

Although there are various definitions of mental health and their precise statements are affected by cultural differences and competing professional theories, the challenges posed by mental health sufferers are rife in the Caribbean. Consideration must now be given to the fact that mental patients don't have to be secluded in 'mad houses as a means of society's escape from the problem.

For sure, Caribbean governments must now begin to expand networks like peer counseling and support groups to aid in the treatment of mental disorders. The Caribbean is in dire need of mental health care workers as depression and anxiety and other mental health disorders are on the rise.

It is true that the history of mental health in the Caribbean follows a similar path as found in other regions of the world. However, it is evident that research projects are urgently needed and Caribbean governments must now come up with a new approach in treating mental illness.

It makes sense that if the Caribbean is to be acknowledged in the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals of health and well being, the elimination of poverty, quality education and peace and justice and strong institutions, then tackling the stigma of mental health, reducing inequalities in accessing care and integrating mental and physical healthcare is of primary importance in the Caribbean.

More significantly, Goal 3 of the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) focuses on ensuring healthy lives and promoting the well-being for all people. The promotion of mental health and well-being is a health priority within the global development agenda. International organizations like Pan American Health Organization PAHO, must seek new ways to organize and coordinate with multilateral organizations to help support the Caribbean region in achieving the objectives of its health agenda. Seeing that CARICOM is a regional entity and countries hold independent membership as part of the Pan American Health Organization/World Health Organization (PAHO/WHO), policy directions to reduce health inequalities and advance mental health should be a sought-after goal.

Undoubtedly, mental health disorders are a threat to human health in the Caribbean. If the Caribbean is to ensure its place in the competitive global environment, then, it is important that Caribbean leaders embark on a new vision for the treatment of mental health as an aid to progress and development.