Mon | Oct 15, 2018

Amanda Quest | Mental meltdown: youth under siege

Published:Wednesday | August 22, 2018 | 12:00 AM

 Jamaica's youth contend with a multiplicity of challenges, particularly as they seek to navigate the murky and often treacherous waters of adolescence and young adulthood.

One such challenge concerning youth mental health has been brought sharply into focus owing, in large part, to the findings of recent studies that have uncovered the existence of a mental-health crisis among Jamaican youth. Disturbingly, a 2014 study examining the risk factors associated with youth suicidality in Jamaica revealed that young people constituted more than 50 per cent of all cases of attempted suicide treated at public hospitals across the island.

The same study also concluded that suicidal ideation was most prevalent among 15-24-year-olds, and that 15-19-year-olds accounted for approximately 72.5 per cent of students who had the highest risk of suicide. Equally disconcerting are the results of a very recent

U-Report Jamaica poll exploring youth mental health and suicide, which found that of the 1,000 young people who responded to the poll, approximately 53 per cent had contemplated suicide and approximately 31 per cent (a worrying one in three youth) had actually attempted to commit suicide.

Yet, despite the publication of these alarming findings, youth mental health continues to remain firmly on the back burner. To date, it has been neither effectively prioritised at various levels of governance and decision-making nor substantively contemplated in the formulation and implementation of various youth-focused programmes and initiatives.

At present, Jamaica's capacity to deliver mental-health services to the populace is well below international standards. In fact, according to the recently launched Situation Analysis of Jamaica Children - 2018 report, which was jointly prepared by UNICEF Jamaica and CAPRI, our country has only ONE psychiatrist for every 1,582 patients, and only ONE community mental-health officer/nurse for every 306 patients. Unquestionably, this deficit would considerably impede the efficacy of any institutional response to the mental-health crisis currently afflicting our youth.

 

Decisive Action Needed

 

Having now gained some appreciation of the gravity of this issue, policymakers and decision-makers would do well to begin thinking more seriously about how it can be addressed in a manner that is holistic and sustainable. Now more than ever, urgent and decisive action is needed on the part of all key stakeholders (particularly at the governmental level) to engender a radical shift - critically through comprehensive, targeted, evidence-based and culturally relevant public education on mental-health and concomitant issues - in the way our society sees, thinks and talks about mental health.

This would represent a critical first step towards (gradually) eradicating the enduring socio-cultural stigma attached to mental ill health, which - quite apart from the expense typically associated with accessing essential mental health services - tends to dissuade individuals from seeking professional help when experiencing mental-health challenges.

Moreover, it is imperative that the Government make concentrated, coordinated and sustained efforts to meaningfully prioritise this issue, and expeditiously deploy the resources that are so desperately needed to subsidise the cost of mental-health services in the country, so that access - especially by affected youth and their families - to critical mental-health services can be substantially increased.

Indeed, when considering that, as Professor Frederick Hickling has pointed out, only about 1.5 per cent of the national health budget is allocated specifically towards treating mental-health issues, this becomes even more crucial.

The mental health of our youth is not a matter that should be trivialised or otherwise taken lightly. If - as we often emphatically iterate - our youth are the future, we need to get serious about addressing the manifold issues that they face in the present. This is necessary if they are to become sufficiently empowered to realise their full potential and contribute meaningfully to the ongoing project of nation-building.

- Amanda Quest is a law student and freelance researcher. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and questamanda@hotmail.com.