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No face for mental illness

News day / Commenting on information provided by Acting Chief Medical Officer Dr Vishwanath Partapsingh, Mahabir said 20 to 25 percent of the population could be afflicted with some form of mental illness.

Mahabir, an Independent senator, claimed that the Mental Health Act is flawed as to how a mentally ill person is defined. He said,” It is highly likely that someone is suffering a mental illness but he is not to be found muttering to himself or wandering.” Based on the information provided by Partapsingh, Mahabir opined that three of the 15 people attending the hearing could have some type of mental illness.

He said depression, anxiety and other mental illnesses are internal feelings and, “really are not manifested in outward behaviour.” Mahabir suggested the ministry launch a public campaign to educate citizens about mental illnesses. St Ann’s Hospital Medical Chief of Staff, Dr Hazel Ann Othello, said early detection is important but many people do not seek medical treatment because of the stigma of mental illnesses.

Toco/Sangre Grande MP Glenda Jennings Smith expressed concern that the ministry could not provide information on the number of individuals who were admitted for treatment.

Othello replied that while mental health officers are empowered by law to bring these people in for treatment, sometimes people “disappear into the bushes” when the officers come looking for them. Jennings Smith, a former police officer, was also concerned that some people use mental illness as a defence to avoid penalties when they commit certain acts.

Othello replied, “In our desire to treat, we must not cross certain boundaries. She explained that less than one percent of people diagnosed with mental illnesses are violent. She said because a person had a mental illness that, “does not mean people should be afraid of them or be in a hospital all the time.” Othello added that the vast majority of crimes committed in TT are done by people who are not mentally ill.

D’Abadie/O’Meara MP Ancil Antoine was concerned about geriatric homes, “being used as decanting centres for mentally ill patients.” Antoine recalled that JSC members encountered a situation at one of these homes in north Trinidad. South West Regional Health Authority (RHA)specialist medical officer, Dr Celia Ramcharan, said efforts are being made to have people seek treatment through units at health centres as opposed to psychiatric hospitals.

Othello said there are a sufficient number of general psychiatrists in the country but there is a shortage of specialists to address certain medical illnesses. “We have only two people trained in child and adolescent psychiatry,” she said. Othello added one of those individuals, “is post retirement who continues to give her service on a part time basis.” She also said, “We do not have any geriatric psychiatrists in the government service.” State counsel Mala Kowlessar told Mahabir she would have to check to see if mental cruelty could be a criminal offence.

Mahabir noted that animal cruelty is already a criminal offence.

However Kowlessar indicated that a draft Mental Health Act, with a more community based focused, is currently being worked on. In response to a question from Cumuto/ Manzanilla MP Christine Newallo Hosein, Othello said there are 25 mental health nurses that fall under the North West RHA. She said the Tobago RHA was responsible for treating with mental illness in Tobago. Othello said the current RHA system does not allow a professional from one authority to be reassigned to another in case of shortfall.

Noting the Parliament’s role in law-making, Mahabir suggested this is something which should be looked at in terms of continuity.

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