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Guyana’s self-harm mental health programme expands to Region 5

The Ministry of Public Health department in Region 5, Mahaica-Berbice, is gearing up to provide stigma-free mental health care services relating to self-harm and suicide at its 18 primary health care institutions.

The initial step was taken two weeks ago with the launching of the Self-Harm Surveillance Programme, according to the Regional Health Officer, Dr. Desmond Nicholson.

Self-harming cases, he explained, are non-suicidal, self- inflicted injuries as distinct from suicides, which also will be closely monitored and reported to the Ministry of Public Health daily.

The Self Harm Surveillance Programme is being supervised by the Mental Health Unit of the ministry which rolled out similar programmes in Region 2 (Pomeroon-Supenaam), Region 3 (West Demerara-Essequibo Islands) and Region 6 (East Berbice-Corentyne) in 2017. The program is part of Guyana’s National Health Action Plan 2015-2020.

Dr. Nicholson said that the establishment of the Region 5 programme occurs against a backdrop of this area having inched up to second place in the number of self-harm cases and suicides reported in Guyana in the past year with Region 2 being first, and Region 7, third on the list.

“The reason for doing the surveillance is that we want to catch these self-harm and potentially suicidal people early; these people who may have cut their wrists for example. So, we can help them before they go to that fatal step. We know of the emotional, psychological and economic burdens that families face as a result of the untimely death of a family member to suicide and we are duty bound to do something about that at the level where it matters most – the community and primary health care level,” Dr. Nicholson was quoted as saying by the government’s Department of Public Information.

Doctors, Nurses and Social Workers within Mahaica-Berbice who are not psychiatrists are to be trained in the use of the Mental Health GAP Action Programme (mhGAP) which will equip them with lower-level psychiatric education for providing effective mental health care.

This programme is known to be effective in helping persons with mental disorders such as depression, psychosis, and self-harm which can lead to suicide, epilepsy, dementia and stresses that are due to substance abuse.

According to Dr. Nicholson, through this initiative being pursued, persons who need treatment can access it in their communities, in this case in Region 5, and then go on to lead very productive and useful lives.

Dr. Nicholson said that the training of personnel within Region 5 in mhGAP will commence in February.  “Following the initial capacity building of the health care personnel, people in Region 5 with mental health issues will be able to access services on an outpatient basis and no longer attract the stigma of having been institutionalised in the National Psychiatric Centre. They will be able to visit these primary care institutions just like a diabetic patient, hypertensive patient or any other chronic illness patient.”

There will be three training sessions for capacity building of the targeted personnel this year, and other plans include the provision of one short-stay bed at each of the two hospitals within the region.

The Regional Administration of Mahaica-Berbice has pledged to provide the necessary psychotropic medications for patients.

Notwithstanding the mhGAP training of non-specialists, the Health Department of the Region is hoping for the employment of a Resident Psychiatrist during this year.

The Department will also train school teachers on how to identify a child who is having mental health distress. Social workers will visit homes of those at risk of self-harm and suicide, and the entire family will be assessed and followup actions taken.