Editorial | Mental-health task force a good start
We hope, sincerely, that Chris Tufton's move provides an opening for a candid national conversation on mental illness in Jamaica, leading to a reduction of stigma and improved and adequate treatment for people with the problem. That could only benefit the social and economic welfare of the country.
A week ago, this newspaper reported that in 2015, an estimated 108,000 Jamaicans, or approximately four per cent of the island's population, were treated at public institutions for mental illnesses. This represented a jump of around 20 per cent on the average number of patients who accessed such care over the two previous years. This is significant, for no other illness recorded the level of increase in patients seeking help.
This we take to be good, especially if it means that mental illness is coming out of the shadows, and patients and their families are increasingly willing to acknowledge problems and seek help. A reasonable assumption, in the event when such things happen, is that the stigma is on the decline. Or, so we hope.
Urgent action needed
Whatever those statistics suggest, they don't go anywhere near the estimates of Professor Fred Hickling, emeritus professor of psychiatry at the University of West Indies, Mona. He recently drew attention in this newspaper to estimates that up to 20 per cent of people globally suffered from anxiety and depression, and a move by the World Bank to bring such mental illnesses, and the cost of the failure to treatment, to the forefront of the global economic discourse.
But by Prof Hickling's reckoning, far more than a fifth of Jamaica's population suffer from mental disorders. Half a decade ago, he and a fellow researcher suggested that up to 40 per cent of Jamaicans, or between three and six times higher than in other countries, exhibited personality disorders. In his more recent observation about Jamaica, he said that if personality disorder, psychosis, dementia, and other conditions were taken together, "the prevalence of mental illness in our little island would exceed 70 per cent".
That, in our view, is a mental epidemic in need of urgent action, the beginning of which we hope Dr Tufton's move represents. The health minister says he is appointing a task force, to be led by consultant psychiatrist Earl Wright, to review the matter of mental health and its social and economic impact on the country. The specific terms of references, and, therefore, the full scope of the task force's remit, have not yet been announced, but we hope that among the things they lead to is a rebalancing of the health-care budget, given the seeming scope of the mental-health problem, which gets only two and a half per cent of the health-care spend. That should also mean new approaches and systems by the State in managing mental-health patients.
Using only the work hours lost by people who sought mental-health treatment and public institutions, the estimated cost of lost output reported by this newspaper was close to J$1 billion. The real cost would be multiples of that - and without using Prof Hickling's estimate of the scale of mental illness. And given the global estimate of a fourfold return on dollars spent ineffectively treating anxiety and depression, it is an investment that Jamaica should be ready to make.