Health Ministry tackling suicide, to establish substance abuse ward


The Ministry of Public Health’s Mental Health Unit has recorded a decrease in suicide cases in 2018 when compared to the previous year.

This was disclosed by Head of the Unit, Dr. Util Thomas, who was speaking at a Mental Health Workshop held by the British High Commission in collaboration with the Guyana Press Association (GPA) at the High Commissioner’s Bel Air Gardens, Georgetown residence on Saturday.

Head of the Mental Health Unit, Dr. Util Thomas

She said suicide is a priority mental health problem.

Dr. Thomas said the Unit only began tracking the suicide rates when she was appointed in 2016. It found that in 2017, there were 184 cases of which 127 were males. This reduced in 2018 to 141 cases of which 117 were males and the remainder females.

She pointed out that there are many contributing factors which the Ministry is working to address. One of those is substance abuse and another is self-harm.

Firstly, she said persons tend to commit acts when they are intoxicated which they would not have otherwise done.

As such, the Ministry of Public Health is looking to establish a substance abuse ward in 2020 at the National Psychiatric Hospital located in New Amsterdam, Berbice.

The Mental Health practitioner told the News Room that “most of the admissions to the [psychiatric] ward are dual diagnosis, there are psychosis brought on by some form of substance abuse.”

She explained that substance abuse treatment can be done on an outpatient level as well, however, such a person will have to show up regularly for counselling and do whatever is asked of them.

“The main purpose of the facility is to keep them away from the substance because a lot of the do not have the strength to voluntarily keep them away from the substance,” she added.

Secondly, Dr Thomas pointed out that the Ministry is conducting a programme targeting persons who harm themselves.

“Most persons practice until they build up the courage to perform the act,” she said when asked about the origin of the programme.

The self-harm surveillance program targets persons who in one form or the other perform acts to physically harm themselves, inclusive of those who attempt suicide.

There are social workers embedded in strategic areas to ensure that the programme is effective, including the New Amsterdam Hospital (Region Six), the West Demerara Regional Hospital (Region Three), Suddie Hopsital (Region Two) and Linden Hospital (Region Ten).

Follow ups are done with the patients until a psychiatrist certifies that they’re no longer at risk, Dr. Thomas said.

“We also assess the survivors, we check if there is any family member with increased risk of suicide,” she said.

Additionally, the Ministry offers services at its Mental Health Unit at Brickdam, Georgetown from 08:00hrs to 16:00hrs on week days.

The other causes of suicide in Guyana, Dr. Thomas said are financial loss, chronic pain which interferes with a person’s ability to sleep, family history of suicide, abuse and depression among others.

The context of family history is often debated but the Mental Health practitioner explained that family members most times “share coping mechanisms” and this contributes to what is referred to as ‘the copycat’ symptom.

In the Americas, the highest suicide rate was found among persons of over 70 years of age while in Guyana the highest cases of suicide come from persons who are between 60 to 64 years.

Dr. Thomas said one of the challenges faced is the lack of mental health specialists to cater to the entire population.

There are about seven psychiatrists for the entire population, she said, noting that that’s less than one psychiatrist for every 100,000 population.

The Ministry is, however, teaching primary care doctors, teachers and others to assist in treating mental health.

At Saturday’s workshop, the media was educated on how to effectively report on mental health and suicide without contributing to the problem.

Other presenters included Deputy British High Commissioner Ray Davidson, Professor Paloma Mohamed and social activist Vidyartha Kissoon and veteran journalist, Neil Marks.

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