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Mental illness closer to home than we think

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We do not have statistics on the incidence of mental illness in St Vincent and the Grenadines, but in the United Kingdom, one in four adults and one in 10 children are likely to have a mental health problem in any given year.

International statistics also show that globally, mental disorders continue to increase, contributing significantly to morbidity, disability and premature mortality. There is no reason to suggest that the local statistics deviate very much from what has been recorded in the UK or around the world.

Mental illness is therefore all around us, but despite this, St Vincent and the Grenadines (SVG) still has a long way to go before it can be said that, as a society, we treat our mentally ill with dignity. This state of affairs makes the situation for those faced with mental health problems worse, because scorn, mockery and social isolation make it more difficult for them to safeguard their well-being and to seek help.

The media, both formal and social, must accept its fair share of blame when it comes to how mentally ill people are perceived and treated by society. Studies show that a majority of the public believe that people with mental health problems are violent, despite the fact that they are more likely to be the victims of crime, rather than the perpetrators.

Such stigma is influenced by how we in the media report serious crime, where we often make a causal link between crime, violence and mental illness. We also have to be careful that in our publications, the actions or the utterances of the mentally ill are not presented as a source of entertainment or amusement.

In our tiny country, issues concerning mental health carry with them significant stigma, so persons needing professional care in matters of the mind very often delay until the problem has worsened and can no longer be ignored.

Adding to the day-to-day stresses of yesteryear, an increasing number of our people, particularly our teenagers and young adults, have accounts with social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, which are supposed to promote social interaction and camaraderie.

Researchers have, however, been finding that persons who frequently engage online are more vulnerable to depression, loneliness and low self-worth. According to the New York Post, in 2013, scientists at two German universities monitored 584 Facebook users and found one in three would feel worse after checking what their friends were up to, especially if their friends’ posts gave a favourable impression of their lives. Additionally, the studies show that young people, no matter how accomplished, are the most vulnerable.

We, therefore, need to be concerned and to take stock. But the good news is that awareness of our vulnerabilities is half the battle. We need to take a deliberate and proactive approach to safeguarding our mental health and that of our children, in much the same way as we look after our physical health.

We also must ensure that as individuals, families, the media and the immediate and wider community, we do not, by our actions and attitudes, make the situation of the mentally ill worse. What is our attitude to them? Are we willing to hire former patients in our businesses? Do we welcome them back into our homes, families or circles of friendship? Just a few questions we need to ask ourselves.

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