Editorial | Another side of the mental health crisis
Who failed Laron Jurik? Or more pertinently, perhaps, how is Jamaica responding to the emerging post-COVID-19 public health crisis, a mental health epidemic, especially among older people and adolescents?
It may be that while they address the matter as an abstraction, public health officials and policymakers have not yet grasped the depth of the problem. In the event that that is the case, and officials are not soon shaken from their lassitude, the country may be in danger of losing another generation.
In this regard, Laron Jurik is an object of anguish for himself and those who were close to him, as well as a metaphor of all the children facing this crisis and in danger of being consumed by it. Laron was 12. This week, he hanged himself. It was at least his second attempt at suicide.
Laron’s mother recalled being called by the boy’s teacher one time to be told that he had “slit the main vein on him hand”. There may be, in the circumstance, questions about the diligence and quality of her parenting. But it is equally appropriate to ask whether, in the aftermath of the initial trauma, Laron and his mom, a single mother in a rural western corner of Jamaica, received the help they needed, or whether she was expected to naturally possess the skills to deal with the challenges of an obviously deeply troubled child.
Such questions are increasingly relevant, and urgent, given the stresses being faced by Jamaican children, which are increasingly being manifested as violence in schools, drug abuse and other antisocial behaviours. Jamaica, in this respect, is hardly different from many other countries, although the island’s long history of social instability and criminal violence makes the situation more perilous.
Moreover, while it is not easily admitted, Jamaica already had a high level of mental health problems. Indeed, the health authorities estimate that up to a quarter of the population will at some point in their lives suffer from a mental condition. Private researches have, at points, put the prevalence of mental illness as high as 40 per cent.
There are no studies of current incidence in the island, but as is the case globally, experts here say that the sense of isolation and anxieties caused by the coronavirus pandemic, from which the world is still emerging, exacerbated these challenges. Old people and children suffered most. Indeed, in its 2021 report on the state of the world’s children, UNICEF’s then Executive Director Henrietta Fore observed that in the midst of the pandemic, many children were “filled with sadness, hurt or anxiety”.
“Some are wondering where this world is headed and what their place is in it,” she said. That report estimated a prevalence of mental disorders of 16.4 per cent among Jamaicans age 10-19.
Indeed, despite efforts at online teaching and learning, many Jamaican students were out of school for two years, including 120,000 of whom the school system had absolutely no trace. And of those who logged into their classes, up to a third did so only sporadically. Yet, for many children, school is their most important, and often only, stabilising environment. They lost, for a long time, that critical social anchor.
Given this backdrop, many experts were not surprised by seemingly shorter triggers to, and higher levels of, interpersonal conflicts students brought back to school at the reopening, and their seemingly worsened ability to resolve disputes. Schoolyard student-on-student violence has, in a few months, caused at least three deaths – murders – and several injuries. Teachers, too, have been attacked.
These problems ought not to be characterised merely as failures at dispute resolution, without a deeper interrogation of the issues driving the problem. Indeed, violence in schools, and therefore, the solution to that problem, cannot be disconnected totally from the kind of mental health issues that drove little Laron Jurik to take his own life.
And whatever may be the triggers for specific bouts of antisocial behaviour, the inability to cope may, as in the case of Laron, end in suicide, or in schoolyard fights in which an adolescent dies. We previously recommended that the Government dispatch an army of guidance counsellors, psychologists, psychiatrists, peer and volunteer counsellors and dispute resolution specialists to descend on Jamaican schools to address the crisis. We still hold that view.
This mobilisation must include a robust, ongoing conversation to bring into the mainstream issues relating to mental health. Which is why we were elated when Connie Francis, the coach of Jamaica’s national netball team, in the aftermath of her significant triumph at last summer’s Commonwealth Games, spoke publicly about the pressures and challenges she faced and why she wanted a break from the job. It is why we were disappointed when significant interests appeared willing to pressure Ms Francis to stay. And it is why we hope that having voluntarily entered the fray, to the good of many, Ms Francis will again publicly discuss her decision.
Further, the Government should not only acknowledge that Jamaica is on the cusp of, if not deep into, a mental health crisis and begin to treat the situation as the epidemic it is, or will become.