Thu | Jan 24, 2019

Editorial | Schools and the mental health epidemic

Published:Wednesday | February 21, 2018 | 12:00 AM


We know nothing of the social circumstances of the Wolmer's Boys' School student who circulated the voice note threatening mass violence at the institution. But unlike the school's principal, Dr Walton Small, who sought to publicly downplay the incident, we think it is a big issue - a wake-up call of sorts to the education sector, and should be treated as such. For, the young man's behaviour serves to focus attention on the mental-health issues faced by Jamaica's young people, as much as it appeared to have been a cry for help from a most at-risk member of the youth population.

What is, thus far, publicly known about this matter is that the 18-year-old student ranted to the effect that he could be the next high-school mass killer, similar to those who have claimed multiple victims in shootings at American high schools. The boy is claimed to have attempted or contemplated suicide twice before, and to have felt abandoned by people close to him when he needed them most.


Tough-guy image prized


In a Jamaica where the tough-guy image is highly prized, it is likely that these remarks will be dismissed by some as mere weak prattle, or for the young man to be labelled a wannabe copycat. But there are disturbing data that should give pause for thought.

There is no immediate breakout by age, gender or educational attainment, but in 2015, according to the Government, 108,000 Jamaicans, or approximately four per cent of the population, were treated at public facilities for mental health issues. The number was up 20 per cent on the average for the previous two years. Significantly, 80 per cent of those who sought treatment suffer from schizophrenia.

Another bit of data sometimes referenced by public-health officials is from a 2008 survey that estimated that 20 per cent of persons in Jamaica, aged between the ages of 15 and 74, suffered from depression. That is around half a million people, including, we expect, many high-school students. What is more concerning is the estimate by a leading public health official, psychiatrist Maureen Irons-Morgan, that perhaps half of these cases go undiagnosed and untreated, largely because of people's reluctance to seek help. That has much to do with the stigma Jamaicans associate with mental-health problems.

Yet, if the research data of highly respected psychiatrist Dr Fred Hickling and clinical psychologist Dr Vanessa Paisley are to be believed, Jamaica is faced with a mental-health epidemic. Their 2010 finding was that 40 per cent of Jamaicans suffered from some form of mental-health problem. That is between three and six times the global average. Obviously, many of these sufferers will be in our educational institutions at various levels, and in the absence of treatment, many of their symptoms are evidenced in antisocial behaviour, including gang membership and criminal violence.

Boys, in the circumstances, especially those at the lower socio-economic levels, are likely to be both victims and perpetrators of the negative behaviours that flow from untreated mental problems. For, as Herbert Gayle, the social anthropologist, has highlighted, boys are three times more likely than girls to be beaten in homes; they account for up to 95 per cent of the child victims of violence, including murder; are more likely than girls to be neglected by fathers; and in up to a quarter of working-class and inner-city homes, are expected to hustle to help boost the family income.

So, unlike Dr Small's satisfaction that 'not more than 10 per cent' of the Wolmer's Boys' population knew of the recent incident on Monday, we believe that all should know and be encouraged to discuss their emotional hurts and pains with teachers, family and friends.

Further, two years ago, the health minister, Christopher Tufton, established a task force on mental health, whose findings are yet to be disclosed. Dr Tufton should, in the meantime, unleash an army of resource people in the schools to support guidance counsellors to help address what we fear is an epidemic of mental health stresses.