Youth mental health takes center stage

Lizzette Yearwood, a board member of the Alex Panton Foundation and the chief executive officer of the Health Services Authority, moderated a panel discussion with mental health professionals at Saturday’s symposium. – PHOTO: Spencer Fordin

The state of mental health in the Cayman Islands came under close scrutiny on Saturday, when concerned adults from all walks of life met at the Marriott for the second annual Mental Health Symposium.

The event, hosted by the Alex Panton Foundation, was designed to discuss the latest developments in the area of youth mental health services in Cayman. The theme – Addressing Our Past, Supporting Our Future – aimed to take stock of the current conditions in Cayman and find ways to improve them.

Jane Panton, the chairperson of the Alex Panton Foundation, issued welcome remarks Saturday, and she was followed by Governor Marytn Roper and Minister of Health Dwayne Seymour.

Dr. Erica Lam, the clinical consultant for the Alex Panton Foundation, and Brenda Watson and Luisa McLaughlin of the National Drugs Council, gave a presentation on the past of mental health treatment in the Cayman Islands. Later, Kevin Ashworth, an inspector with the Royal Cayman Islands Police Service Family Support Unit, spoke about the connection between delinquency and mental illness.

After lunch, the symposium featured a panel discussion that incorporated the views of several local experts. Dr. Marc Lockhart, the chairman of the Mental Health Commission, spoke first, and he said that Cayman has met many challenges but still has to face many more in the future.

“Many of us that have been here working for 18-20 years or longer realize that we have come a long way,” said Dr. Lockhart. “But we still have a long way to go.”

Paulinda Mendoza-Williams, director of the Department of Children and Family Services, spoke briefly about her agency’s mission in safe-guarding the children of Cayman. Child abuse, she said, is one of the largest local factors that causes children to suffer from mental abuse.

“In statistics for 2018, we’ve seen over 400 referrals for various forms of child abuse in the Cayman Islands,” Ms. Mendoza-Williams said. “The theme of today’s symposium is very critical, because we want to look at what’s been happening, but more so what are we are doing as a community.”

Shannon Seymour, director of the Wellness Centre, said that her company has recently expanded services and lodged its first full time staff member on Cayman Brac.

The Wellness Centre is seeing an increased need in children and adolescents seeking services, she said, and also an increase in schools looking to collaborate with mental health professionals.

“When I think of my own path here in the Cayman Islands – 30 years ago arriving as a teenager, 22 years ago coming back as a professional – progress has been made,” Ms. Seymour said.

“The hard work that’s gone into today where we can fill a ballroom full of people that want to talk about youth mental health, that’s something that I think is worthy of recognition.”

Terry Delaney, a private practice psychologist, drew a distinction between the brain and the mind. One is a physical organ, he said, and the other is a manifestation of people’s emotions and experiences.

Mr. Delaney asked everyone at the symposium to close their eyes and imagine that there was no light. Then, he said, imagine trying to exit the room without being able to see anything. The panic that would ensue, he said, is a rough analogy for what it’s like to be an adolescent in an adult’s world.

“In my analogy, experience and knowledge are light. At that young an age, there’s very little experience and very little knowledge,” he said.

“I do this with you this afternoon because I think we need to get a better concept of what adolescence is about. It’s not always just angst. … We tend to be very judgmental when we get into this, and to develop any compassion, we have to get that concept where they’re lost.

“This isn’t being derogatory towards them; some of the most intelligent people I’ve ever known have been 17 years old. We need to acquire a balance in that, to respect what they bring to us and at the same time honor the fact that they’re going through the most intense change they will in life: Physically, emotionally, spiritually, sexually. In every way of life, they’re going through massive change.”