Sun | Jun 16, 2024

Garth Rattray | May is mental health awareness month

Published:Sunday | May 26, 2024 | 12:06 AM

Despite the prevalence of mental health problems throughout the world, and in Jamaica, the vast majority of citizens do not know that May is mental health awareness month. Since 1949, the United States of America has been observing May as National Mental Health Awareness Month. It is meant to be a time when advocates and activists put the spotlight on mental health issues. Jamaica also acknowledges and observes the significance of this month.

Another important event also occurs annually in May. In 2010, WONCA – the World Organization of National Colleges, Academies and Academic Associations of General Practitioners/Family Physicians (abbreviated as the World Organization of Family Doctors) designated that May 19 be set aside for the annual celebration of World Family Doctors Day (WFDD), to recognise “the central role of Family Doctors in delivering personal, comprehensive, and continuous healthcare to patients”. Family Doctors Day serves to “acknowledge their significant role in patients’ lives and communities”.

Jamaica began commemorating WFDD in 2015. This year, the Caribbean College of Family Physicians (CCFP), the Association of General Practitioners of Jamaica (AGPJ), and the Family Medicine Post Graduate Programme (FAMMED) at the University of the West Indies, Mona, chose the important theme, ‘Preparing for the Mental Health Explosion: The Role of the Family Physician’.

Even before the trauma of the COVID-19 pandemic, mental health issues were of serious concern. Perhaps the biggest hurdles to identifying and treating mental health issues are the [general] lack of knowledge concerning mental health, misconceptions, and the unwarranted stigma attached to mental health. The pandemic, with its concomitant psychological and physical stressors, has initiated mental health problems and/or amplified them in many individuals.

MENTAL HEALTH ISSUES

The gamut of mental health issues includes anxiety, depression, PTSD, OCD, bipolar disorder, eating disorders, schizophrenia, panic disorder, and personality disorders. Nobody wants to have mental health problems, but, like many other afflictions, like hypertension, diabetes, high cholesterol, arthritis, broken bones and so on, if we get them, we should seek help to treat them. However, many people are embarrassed to admit to themselves and to others that they have mental health issues. Those who deny themselves the opportunity for treatment could become quite ill.

Anxiety disorders are the most common of the mental health maladies, and depression comes in a close second. Sometimes the two are mixed. At the very onset of the pandemic, there was a deluge of information, a torrent of misinformation and a plethora of disinformation. When it comes to COVID-19, there are no experts, yet [especially] social media was awash with charlatans and wannabes who frightened, confused, and endangered the public. The resultant anxiety has been carried over into the present time.

Mental health is sensitive to traumatic events and their social and economic consequences. The restrictions, loss of freedom, loss of income, loss of social interaction, food shortages, necessary frequent sanitary and protective measures, testing, vaccinations, remote working, and learning, disrupted routines, separation from friends and some family members, altered sleep and eating routines, eye and neck strain from computer and cell-phone use, the inability to exercise outdoors, go to the gym, or visit recreational sites, or the movies, restaurants, no birthday or graduation activities, and so on, were extremely stressful to most of us.

ISOLATED

Then there were the sick and dying who were isolated from their loved ones. They suffered and died alone, without the closeness of family and spouses to comfort them. And, even after their demise, loved ones were not able to adequately grieve, or be solaced by friends and family members, or carry out the customary ceremonies to experience closure.

In the United States, anxiety and depression were identified early in the pandemic, with reports of up to sixfold increase from prior-year levels. Even for those who did not test positive for COVID-19, there was trauma that caused mental health issues because of the pandemic. Concerns about mental health and substance abuse remain elevated three years after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In Jamaica, the Northern Caribbean University conducted an islandwide study in October and November 2022. Whereas 53 per cent of the 1,066 adult males surveyed experienced varying levels of depression in the retreat of COVID-19, of the 1186 women sampled, none fell into the ‘no depression’ category. Although shocking, this is in keeping with the National Institute of Mental Health finding that “Depression is more common among women than men”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted every aspect of our lives, but perhaps none more so than that of our children. The pandemic has had a profound effect on their well-being. The stressful period, difficulties accessing and/or adjusting to online classes, and being denied critical social interaction were more than just inconveniences, they had long-term consequences. Violence in schools skyrocketed and academic and career prospects were negatively impacted.

The WHO aptly summarised the mental health epidemic following COVID-19 this way, “Plenty of us became more anxious, but for some COVID-19 has sparked or amplified much more serious mental health problems”.

Renowned psychiatrist Professor Abel, et al, noted that depression should be a public health concern in Jamaica. We must destigmatise mental health issues and raise public awareness of this new [mental health] pandemic. Our schoolchildren need resocialising to combat the severe harm caused by isolation and social media. We must make our citizenry aware that mental health issues are just like physical health issues.

Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Send feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and garthrattray@gmail.com