Thursday, November 16, 2006

Stella Says…Society is obligated to help the homeless with mental disorders

by Stella Ramsaroop

(Originally published in Guyana's Kaieteur News on 16 November 2006)

According to a Toronto Sun article published yesterday, the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH) has released a report this week showing that Ontario taxpayers forked over an astronomical $34 billion in 2000 for mental disorders and substance abuse.

The article said, “The province suffered $28.7 billion in productivity losses and $5.1 billion was spent on hospitalization, community mental health and substance abuse programs, law enforcement, and research and education, the report said.”

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mental illness is still under diagnosed despite being very common. In fact, I believe my own mother suffered from some form of mental illness, which contributed greatly to her abusive tendencies. I am not a doctor, but I think my mother might have been bi-polar.

However, back then there was no one to help her and there was still a stigma attached to anyone who had to take an anti-depressant much less any other drugs that would help those with mental disorders.

People are more informed today though, and with the stress of life combined with a lack of proper nutrition and sleep, people are becoming more inclined to seek professional help when they need it.

In recent years, the medical community has found that mental illnesses can lead to physical problems that can affect a person’s overall health and even something as unassuming as depression can lead to suicide if not treated.

Moreover, it has also been found that some mental disorders are caused by physical problems, such as a chemical imbalance that can be remedied with medication. A sick person with money simply needs to visit their family doctor to receive the necessary help, but what about the poor?

Even mild forms of mental illness left untreated can impact so many people. For example, my mother may have suffered from a mild mental disorder, but her illness produced tragic consequences for her children. Those who suffer from more severe mental disorders can cause tragic consequences for society as a whole.

Guyana has a large amount of mentally ill people who live on the streets. These people simply need some medical attention, but left on their own are a danger to others and to themselves. It is too easy to hurry past them on the street and not care about their plight, but that will never resolve this situation.

You might see some of these mentally ill people on the streets rant and rave to hallucinated figures, some are unclothed and some are even catatonic. These abnormal states cause fear and anger in most passer-bys, but does anyone stop for a moment to contemplate what that person would be like if he or she received some proper medical treatment?

It is possible that many of the mentally ill homeless could be productive members of society if they receive the proper medication and counselling. Even those who suffer from the most extreme cases of mental illness do not belong on the streets. They should be in a medical facility under the care of a doctor.

I am not suggesting that Guyana’s government spend the billions of dollars that Ontario spent in 2000, but the issue will not simply go away by being ignored either. I have seen letters that point out that the sight of Guyana’s mentally ill homeless might frighten visitors for the World Cup and reflect poorly upon the country.

This statement is true and it is also a viable concern, but Guyana needs to worry about these people simply because they are Guyanese who need help. There are some homeless who do not suffer from mental disorders too, but that is a whole other column. This column’s focus is to point out that with the right medical attention, these people could be contributing to the community in positive ways.

Churches and charity groups can only offer so much to a mental ill person who is homeless. These organisations do not have the ability treat the physical aspects of mental illness that require medical attention.

Even if a church does help a mentally ill person get cleaned up and off the street, if that person needs medication and does not receive it, a relapse is imminent. A comprehensive strategy needs to be implemented that addresses the medical needs of this small portion of society.

Although it is a small portion, it significantly affects the overall population on a daily basis. There is an obligation that society assumes when it comes to those who cannot care for themselves. This is one thing that makes us different from the rest of the animals on earth - that we have the capacity to care about the difficulties of others and to act on that compassion.

Email: StellaSays[at]gmail.com

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