INSIGHT: It’s time to grow up and get serious about mental health

By Malcolm Strachan

LAST week’s arrest of two women in connection with a string of child abductions allowed the Bahamian people to breathe a sigh of relief. Throughout international media, we hear so many unfortunate stories involving children. And though we’ve had our fair share of tragedies, it still is not something prevalent in Bahamian society. The Marco Archer, pictured below, case, perhaps the most notable in recent history, caused us all to experience flashbacks when the first abduction took place. And then, as child after child was abducted in similar fashion, a sense of anxiety engulfed the Bahamian populace. No one knew if the next time a child was taken the perpetrators would up the stakes.

Thankfully that opportunity never arrived.

Police were able to take 29-year-old De’Edra Gibson into custody and later arrested a suspected accomplice in one of the kidnappings in Eleuthera.

As this case went on since February, many among us found it strange the abducted boys were all reportedly dropped off unharmed. If that had not been odd enough, all of the boys said that despite it being a very frightening experience, their abductor treated them well before releasing them.

Obviously, following this story, it just didn’t make sense. It wasn’t consistent with the narrative many believed – that this was some perverted psychopath looking for little boys to take advantage of. Not at all.

Ms Gibson, since being in police custody, rather, has appeared to be a person with severe mental health issue She has a history of issues of this kind, and as such, a decision was made to remand her to Sandilands Rehabilitation Centre for evaluation on whether she is fit to stand trial.

Quite naturally, in these circumstances, we must evaluate our sensitivity as a society to issues of mental health. Culturally, there is an unfair expectation for people to “suck it up”. But is this truly the right way?

Are we not creating more problems for society when we can be so callously dismissive to the pain of others? We cannot say with certainty what exactly went wrong in Ms Gibson’s life, nor can we say if she had the help of family and friends or not.

All we know is if she is the person responsible for these abductions then she appears to have arrived at a breaking point and we should all be thankful that things didn’t go tragically worse.

Gratefully, the police have done their duty. But now, what about ours?

We can see the Ministry of Health is under-resourced. Thus, it has been handicapped in dealing with such issues. This is a ministry reported to require 400 nurses and experiencing bed and ambulance shortages – obviously a poor reflection on the state of affairs.

That being the case, how can we begin to think about tackling mental health more proactively? Especially when culturally the majority of us don’t even view it as an issue.

From the time many of us were children, we’ve seen homeless brothers and sisters that have been fixtures in the neighbourhood. Arrogantly, we assume their turning point began in the bottom of a bottle or the end of a pipe – that they were somehow too weak to “suck it up” and fix their messes. As a result, we ignore them – mistakenly believing our lives are so well put together that we would never be in their shoes.

What we take for granted is how fragile our mental fitness is, and the fact we already live in a society with the odds stacked against us.

Yet, we sit on our high horses staring down at those struggling at rock bottom. Immaturely, we confuse mental health with its by-products. Depression, psychotic episodes and addiction are all consequences of failing mental health.

A paper published by the World Health Organisation defines mental health as “a state of well-being in which the individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community”.

Going further, the piece explored mental health from the perspective of it having three determinants – individual attributes, social circumstances and environmental factors. What was most interesting in analysing these determinants was that our population experiences more adverse factors such as low self-esteem, difficulties in communication, family conflict, exposure to violence and abuse, unemployment, poor access to basic services, social and gender inequalities and low income and poverty.

Just look to the left or right of you. Are the majority of Bahamian citizens happy? Are even half of us satisfied with the cards life has dealt us?

We depend so heavily on nepotism and political favours that the typical routes of getting ahead in life such as hard work and getting an education have grown more futile as time passes on.

Kids are leaving their homes facing the possibilities of being murdered at school. Families are falling apart in divorce. Our national grade point average is a D. Crime and unemployment are still very serious issues plaguing our society.

These issues, and many more, are not only stifling society, but also damaging our physical and mental health in the process.

We have to wonder if we are ever going to consider what living under such circumstances does to a population over a sustained period of time?

Likewise, we must consider how our lack of empathy to our fellow man and woman causes these problems to snowball.

We don’t know if Ms Gibson was crying out for help before her suspected involvement in these incidents began. At this point, we can only speculate what was the breaking point for her.

Sadly, in our society, we don’t fully take the time to embrace what pain and loss does to people. We expect them to “just get over it” - as if it’s is only their problem to deal with when in reality, it’s not. It’s all of our problem. It’s society’s problem.

From a policy level, the government has to place a focus on channelling resources to the ministries of health and social services, as they both protect the country’s most precious resource – the Bahamian people. As we approach the mid-year budget, we hope that increased funds for these ministries will be integral to the government’s plans to address some of these issues.

People experiencing pain, grief and loss must be made to feel comfortable and supported, as it is not easy for an individual to be vulnerable and reveal their innermost parts in search for help.

And finally, as a society, we must mature. A heightening of our emotional intelligence and awareness can go a long way toward rebuilding a Bahamian society that promotes togetherness.

Somewhere along the way, we lost that innate sense of care for one another. As much as we defer to the government to fix all of the nation’s problems, we each have a role to play.

It is time for us all to become more responsible and do our part.