In Guyana, we tend to think of persons with mental health issues as being “mad”, street dwellers, and patients at the National Psychiatric Hospital. Most might be surprised to learn that the symptoms of mental health illness can include the following:
- Changes in eating and sleeping patterns (increase or decrease)
- Loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities
- Prolonged sadness, anger, nervousness, fear or irritability
- Social withdrawal or Isolation
- Loss of energy, motivation, productivity and efficiency
- Issues with concentration, memory or rational thought
- Increased use of alcohol or illegal substances
- Hearing voices or seeing things that are not there
- Physical symptoms such as headaches, chest pain, dizziness or sweating.
- Suicidal thoughts
Mental Health is therefore the state of our emotional and psychological well-being, which is the state of being comfortable, healthy and happy. Having good mental health is not just living without a diagnosis of mental illness but also making a good contribution to society. It means that we are able to go to school, obtain and maintain employment, have healthy relationships and more importantly, think, feel and act healthily with the capacity to change if needed. If someone has dysfunctional thoughts, moods or behavior, they may be suffering from a mental illness.
The World Health Organization has determined that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. Statistically, this means that over four hundred and fifty million persons around the world will be suffering from mental illness. Mental illnesses such as depression or anxiety are more common than non-communicable diseases such as cancer or diabetes.
A study conducted by researchers (Dr. Jorge Balserio., Bhiro Harry et al.) from the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation found that more than 200,000 Guyanese are suffering from some form of mental illness. This figure represents about 25% of our population, a staggering amount. This basically means that if you are not suffering from a mental illness, you probably know someone who is.
Mental illness is so prominent yet we unconsciously silence those who are suffering. Many persons are afraid to talk to someone because it is believed that the mental illness defines them and makes them less a person. People are not afraid to say that they have cancer because cancer does not define who they are and how they are perceived. Why is mental illness different and more stigmatized?
Attempting to have good mental health is attempting to improve your overall quality of life. Good mental health means greater self-esteem and self-confidence, motivation, productivity and efficiency. It allows us to sleep better, eat and exercise. It builds greater resilience. No one is immune to life’s stressors; we all, at one point or another feel unhealthy amounts of stress. Having good mental health is what allows us to healthily and effectively deal with stress and bounce back from adversity. Our mental health can negatively influence our physical health and result in multiple ailments such as heart, kidney and respiratory issues.
Where does mental health illness come from? It emerges from a complex mix of genetic, biological, psychological and environmental factors. No one factor results in a mental illness. An individual is two to three times more likely to develop a mental illness, if it exists in their family. Distressing situations such as head trauma, substance abuse and personal traumas like domestic abuse also makes persons more likely to develop a mental illness. The National Institute for Mental Health (NIMH) has determined that 90% of suicides are caused by mental illnesses.
Considering the prominence of mental illness, it is beneficial for everyone to know the signs and symptoms, such as outlined earlier, which may point to its onset. There are more than two hundred classified forms of mental illnesses. Some of the more common disorders are depression, anxiety disorders and schizophrenia.
There are specific symptoms that come with certain disorders but there are universal signs that you may be suffering from a mental illness in general. These are typically characterized by sudden, yet prolonged changes in mood, thinking and behavior.
If you have been continuously experiencing a number of these symptoms for more than two weeks, seeing a mental health professional is recommended.
What can you do to help heal those with mental illness? Firstly, educate yourself and others on mental illness. Encourage more open conversations on the subject, as this is the only way to break the stigma and allow mental health to be treated as a legitimate health condition. The more we talk, the more people feel they can speak. The more we share, the more others feel comfortable sharing.
Secondly, if you believe you may have a mental illness, be assured you can be helped. Mental illness does not have to control your life. All types of mental illnesses can be effectively treated and managed with proper medication and counselling. Do not be afraid to reach out. Remember that mental illness is not a personal failure. How you feel is not who you are.
Heal Guyana member, Phillip Williams, shares a few casual phrases that many of us as Guyanese express among ourselves during our everyday conversations. Whether or not we are aware, these seemingly harmless statements are extremely racist and they serve to keep our society trapped in a collective mindset where our people are divided and our circumstances never improve.
Starting with Ourselves.
Take the necessary steps from today to breakaway from these destructive expressions and behavior patterns. Racism hurts everyone and as long as we continue to fight among ourselves, we will remain vulnerable to all forms of external manipulations and political influences which seek to benefit from keeping us distracted from the real issues, relating to Guyana's development.
It is important that we consider some the findings of Guyanese researchers and academics in the past decade. If we are to improve the economic foundations upon which the healing of our social wounds can remain sustainable, we must examine ways of creating optimum conditions that promote the livelihood of people, especially in light of preparing ourselves for the oil and gas economy. These research might have long and at times boring titles, but they are trying to understand some of the main constraints that caused Guyana to under-perform relative to her peers such as Barbados, The Bahamas, St Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, Mauritius, Botswana, Singapore and several other small economies since 1965.
A Developmental Civil Service
Jocelyn Williams of the University of Guyana emphasizes structure of production as a hindrance. Her thesis holds that what a country produces determines its ability to innovate and benefit from knowledge spill overs from one sector to the next. Collin Constantine has extended this research in a very important way by studying how income inequality interacts with economic structures to produce poor economic outcomes. Both Williams and Constantine advocate some form of industrial policy, but not classic state planning. They both understand that a developmental civil service would be crucial for implementing these policies. I agree.
I have also published three papers on this issue since the 2008. One of my early works looks at the role of the financial system in intermediating funds from savers to investors. Essentially, I argued in a 2008 paper in Social and Economic Studies that the economy is not large enough for the financial system to spread out the cost of making loans, which includes information cost associated with monitoring and screening borrowers. Screening and monitoring are important because banks don’t have the same information as borrowers, something we call the asymmetric information problem. This monitoring and screening then helps the banks with getting back their moneys, thereby minimizing non-performing loans. To recoup these costs, commercial banks charge high interest rates that unfortunately curtail some investment and economic growth. The banks are not greedy; they are performing within the constraint of economic laws.
A New Constitution
In later published works, I looked at how strategic pro-ethnic voting results in an underdevelopment trap. I used the canonical model from game theory known as the prisoners’ dilemma, which is a game that shows what happens when distrust results in non-cooperation. It is in the interest of one person or group not to cooperate if they are uncertain the other side will cooperate. They are not bad or racist people; they just don’t have an institutional mechanism such as a constitution that enables them to trust and cooperate at the group level.
I then explore using some simple mathematics how cooperation could result from a new constitution, even under the prisoners’ dilemma problem. I have written in Development Watch column in Stabroek News on some specific constitutional changes that could be introduced to enhance cooperation and electoral competition. Electoral competition is necessary if we are going to have a vibrant democracy with swing voters. I will further develop these proposals in a later column for Heal Guyana.
Finally, I published another paper in 2015 that argued that for us to understand Guyana’s relative economic performance with respect to her peers, we have to go back far in history when Dutch settlers around 1760 made the decision to drain the coastal region for agriculture. They preferred coastal settlement even though it required draining swamps to create a polder system of agriculture. Of course, the settlers could take this path of action because they were able to enslave Africans who dug the canals on which we still rely today. Our negligence has caused us to fill up many of them, thus accounting for increased flooding.
The polder system, however, requires heavy cost of maintenance since the canals are soon covered by tropical vegetation and clay soil if not constantly maintained and cleaned. GuySuCo has done this for decades, but at a heavy financial burden partly explaining why it is costly to produce sugar in Guyana’s polder system versus doing same in the higher lands of Brazil, Mauritius or Cuba.
Building a road network on the polder system of canals means more funds have to go into road construction and there has to be a bridge across each canal for linking the roads. Filling up all these canals is also not an option since there will be more flooding and mosquitoes. This adds cost of infrastructure. Other countries that did better than Guyana – Barbados, The Bahamas, St Lucia, etc. – in development indicators do not have to contend with these conditions. The high cost of infrastructure is coupled with a relatively small Guyanese population. This means the per capita cost of infrastructure is going to be very high, thus impacting negatively on the country’s export competitiveness.
As Guyana contemplates becoming an oil and gas economy, it would be helpful for political leaders, as well as public influencers to consider the constraints raised by these academic research. These constraints will have to be addressed as they contemplate restructuring the economy, in ways that create real opportunities for our population to thrive on a fundamental level.
Heal Guyana is a registered, not-for-profit organisation which functions as a civil society platform that focuses on empowering Guyanese and influencing citizens toward positive behavior change.
The views expressed herein are those of the Author; they do not necessarily reflect the views of Heal Guyana or its Executives.