People with mental health issues are not treated with the respect they need and deserve, according to health professionals and other speakers at a panel discussion Monday at the Cayman Islands Hospital.
The discussion was among events held in recognition of Mental Health Week, which began Oct. 10.
Panelists and audience members agreed that mental health patients are often not treated with respect or are stigmatized or ignored to the point that they lose their dignity.
Panel member Dr. Marc Lockhart, a psychiatrist with Behavioral Health Associates Cayman, said such treatment turns the negative perception of mental health patients into a reality.
“It makes us believe that somebody with a serious mental health illness cannot be helped, and that there is a normal downward slide and that they are going to end up on the street,” he said.
By assuming that there is no hope for severely mentally ill people, society ignores them, exacerbating their situation, according to Dr. Lockhart, turning the stigma into a self-fulfilling prophecy.
He said society should address mental health issues in the same way it addresses other basic civic issues.
“Our roads need to be paved. They’re announcing that we have flooding on Walkers Road and the government is going to be putting in proper sewage … no one is going to challenge that, it’s a basic commodity of our society,” Dr. Lockhart said. “What I rest on the table is that caring for those with chronic illnesses and those at the bottom of society is just as important.”
Several panel members also noted the great need for a residential mental health facility in the Cayman Islands. Currently, several patients must be sent to Jamaica for care, which is costly and can take a heavy toll on both the patients and their families.
Such a facility may also help with mentally ill people who end up in prison, where they are often subjected to abuse because of their illness.
In addition to mental health professionals, the panel included a patient who struggled with alcohol addiction and the mother of a young man with bipolar disorder.
Beyond structural societal changes that require significant legislation and funding, the panelists stressed that everyone has the power to help ensure that mental health patients are able to maintain their dignity.
People are encouraged to treat those grappling with mental illness with humanity, to see them instead of looking away, to ask them how they are, and to take a few moments to listen to the response.
“[As a society we] don’t try to foster social inclusion [of those with mental illness],” said Elma Augustine, a psychologist with Behavioral Health Associates Cayman.
Some members of the audience said they sometimes fear the mentally ill. The assumption that people with mental health issues or substance abuse issues are more “violent, dangerous, or untrustworthy,” is common, said Dr. Lockhart, but not fair.
He said studies show that people with mental health issues are far more likely to be victims rather than be violent themselves. He added that only a small subset of individuals with untreated mental health issues commit acts of violence, and many of these people are also abusing alcohol or drugs.
The panel also addressed discrimination against mentally ill people in the workforce. Many people assume that those with mental health issues are unintelligent or unable to work, but in many cases individuals with mental illnesses have a high level of intelligence and are eager to work if given the opportunity.
Panelists agreed that a little self-awareness of our perceptions and treatment of those with mental health issues can go a long way to ensure that such patients are able to maintain their dignity.
“I think a good place to begin is to start addressing discrimination and stigma and for all of us to start educating people and to be advocates,” Ms. Augustine said.