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Failing our children

Friday, November 17, 2017

The statistics revealed before the Joint Select Committee on mental health services and facilities provided for children in Parliament on Wednesday, were deeply troubling, but not surprising. During the session it was revealed that approximately five per cent of our country’s school population, that is some 12,500 students, face serious mental challenges, including suicidal tendencies.

More worrying and totally unacceptable was the inability of the officials from the Ministry of Health, the Ministry of Education, T&T Association of Psychologists (TTAP) and the Children’s Authority to indicate to the Committee how many of the children affected were detected and referred for treatment because, astonishingly, there was no proper collation of data. How is this possible in the digital age?

To add insult to injury was the disclosure that there are not enough facilities to house children suffering from mental health illnesses and as a result many end up in the at the St Ann’s Psychiatric Hospital, an inpatient facility for adults. This is neglectful and cruel given that housed at St Ann’s Hospital are patients with mental health problems who may be verbally abusive, physically threatening or simply distressing to be with. Imagine how alone and scared these children must feel.

So why are we failing our children so terribly? It is no secret that many childhood “disorders” once thought to resolve with age, are now known to cast long shadows over later development. Mental illness does not go away on its own, and the longer it persists, the harder it is to treat.

According to a study published in JAMA Psychiatry, children and teenagers with a psychiatric disorder had six times higher odds of having health, legal, financial and social problems as adults, and those with milder symptoms were three times more likely to have problems as adults. Further, the study showed that mental health problems that occurred during childhood can make it more likely that someone will struggle as an adult, making it even more likely that they won’t graduate from high school and make it more likely that they may commit a felony.

The negative and often destructive effect on society of untreated mental health problems suffered by children into adulthood is something as a nation we cannot ignore. Today we are reaping the consequences of our failure to effectively address these issues in the past.

So how do the bodies and officials responsible for formulating and implementing policies to address these issues plan to do so? According to psychologist, Dr Nakhid-Chatoor,“We just don’t have people to document and documentation is important. We don’t have personnel in schools and other professionals to provide the kind of services to children.”

Further, according to her, in 2011 the TTAP proposed a plan to address the issues but neither money nor approval was given. Unbelievably, the Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health added that the Paediatric Unit of the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex, Mt Hope, was to be provided with four additional beds sometime next year to cater to mentally challenged children. Is the Ministry (without blaming the PS) serious? How will four beds, “sometime next year” address the mental health problems our children are experiencing?

Which brings us back to the underlying problem our country is facing today, namely the lack of leadership and good governance with a plan that prioritises the needs of the people.

Perhaps, instead of letting the Couva Children’s Hospital fall into disrepair, thought should be given to actually using it. Further, if there is a lack of trained counsellors, guidance officers and the like, I humbly suggest the Government devise a way to encourage people to seek training and employment in these areas, starting with the GATE programme.

But this can only happen if we accept mental health illness is a serious problem that needs to be addressed with urgency. We need to invest in our youth because they are the future. The neglect has to stop.

Mickela Panday


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