Slow movement on new mental health laws but Health Minister hopeful for change

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By Vishani Ragobeer

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There has been slow movement to reform the local legislation on mental health but Minister of Health Dr. Frank Anthony says that two new bills have been drafted recently and he hopes that both pieces of legislation will be passed in the National Assembly soon.

The Health Minister said this while addressing a Mental Health and Well-being Conference at the Arthur Chung Conference Centre at Liliendaal, Georgetown on Monday. According to him, there have been numerous efforts at improving the mental health services in Guyana but legal reform remains crucial.

One crucial reform, he said, is the need to decriminalise attempted suicide. According to the Criminal Law Offences Act Chapter 8:01 (97), jail time is imposed on persons who attempt suicide. The existing law labels attempted suicide a “misdemeanour” and the individual is liable to two years in prison.

Minister of Health Dr. Frank Anthony addressing the Mental Health and Well-Being conference (Photo: DPI/ November 8, 2021)

Dr. Anthony said that this law has not been enforced for some time but still, the law remains “on the books.” Cognisant that research has found that for every person who takes their life, there have been 20 attempts, Dr Anthony said that such punitive legislation should be removed.

However, he stated, “There have been attempts and there have been discussions for us to change those laws but things seem to be moving slowly.”

He later added, “We had a discussion in Parliament on how we can change this but four to five years have elapsed and nothing has happened.”

That being said, however, Dr. Anthony also acknowledged that there are many people calling for and championing the removal of attempted suicide as a criminal offence. As such, he is hopeful that the necessary reform would occur.

And, he highlighted that the local authorities have been able to create a draft Suicide Prevention Bill that should be taken to the National Assembly for debate.

“If we do this year, we can be able to pass it and we can be able to change these old things that have been there that does not create an enabling environment for what we need to do to prevent suicide in Guyana,” Dr. Anthony said.

There is also a draft Mental Health Bill that stakeholders have been perusing, according to the minister. This is expected to replace the 1930 Mental Health Ordinance; Dr. Anthony describes that Ordinance as “problematic” due to its classifications of mental health.

“…the terminology is not in keeping with what we would like to see in a modern mental health architecture and these things have to be changed,” he emphasised.

These legal reforms or overhauls relate to wider efforts geared at promoting mental health in Guyana and reducing the prevalence of suicide and other mental health challenges.

Guyana has had one of the world’s highest rates of suicide, with data from the World Health Organization (WHO) showing that nearly 41 people out of every 100,000 die by suicide. Importantly, more men (some 81 per cent) die by suicide.

In addition to this data, however, a new five-year study on suicide in Guyana will commence in January and is expected to determine specific risk factors and the interventions needed to support individuals and help reduce the prevalence of suicide across the country.

This study is being conducted by a research team from the Global Psychiatric Epidemiology Group in collaboration with local stakeholders.

Dr. Anthony said that he hopes this study and the gathering of mental health stakeholders at the conference would help to inform the government’s efforts at promoting good mental health.

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