Jackie Neil was no stranger to mental health issues touching her wider family, but the mother-of-two never expected that these challenges would eventually reach her inner circle.
However, in 2004, life changed for her when Hurricane Ivan struck Cayman, triggering a mental breakdown in a close relative who had been off-island at the time.
“The predisposition to mental illness was there and then hearing on the news CNN announced that the Cayman Islands is no more… when he heard that… ” Neil said, her voice trailing off and tears welling. “He’s never gone back to school. He has been able to work. He’s been able to hold down part-time jobs… he’s well now, but it certainly changed the way of life for him.”
Mission for change begins
That episode brought to Neil’s doorstep the reality of the lack of facilities on island for those struggling with mental health challenges.
“The fact that my relative, who [had] some serious mental illness, was living at home with me and it was causing chaos in the home environment… our relationships were strained. I did not understand him. He didn’t understand me and I always said, I wish I had somewhere for him to go to live on island, where he would be with people of like mind, his peers, and somebody just to see that they were safe,” said Neil.
Instead, her relative was sent to Jamaica for treatment.
That started her rollercoaster ride through the Cayman health system, leading to years of separation between her and the family member, something she does not want others to have to go through.
It was the motivation for her to establish a group home and create a movement for change in Cayman – ‘LOUD Silent Voices’.
Next month, her mission will come to fruition when she opens the doors to Cayman’s first mental health group home, made possible through the donation of a $500,000 property in Mount Pleasant, West Bay.
“One of the things that I said was, I want to have a place where people that have a mental illness can go be in a safe space, with people to care for them, support them towards independent living because they can, some of them can, and then build that family relationship,” she said.
Neil, the records and coding manager at the Health Services Authority, said that working with Mental Health Commission chairman Dr. Marc Lockhart and other mental health professionals through LOUD Silent Voices will not only provide a physical space for clients, but also support families in need.
“The caregiver support group will work on the family, teach them the skills, how o cope with somebody with a mental illness, teach them how to take care of themselves while they’re taking care of their loved one. And then the group home will facilitate that independent living for the client,” she said.
Neil said the home will accommodate Needs Assessment Unit clients, all of whom will be funded with NAU rent benefits and food vouchers, while private clients will be self-funded. She said the name of the home will be decided by the first residents living there.
Making a difference
Lockhart said the group home will work in tandem with the soon-to-be-completed long-term residential mental health facility and will assist those who may be falling through the cracks in the system.
“This is actually the first mental health group home in the Cayman Islands and this will help to serve as a step down, [referring to] those that have been hospitalised… in the short term and realise that they don’t need to go to the long-term care facility, but at the same time they’re not fully ready to go back into the community and could be here for a while,” he explained.
He said the home completes the circle of mental health care in Cayman by having an acute facility – which is already at the hospital – the long-term care facility, and then a group home.
“That’s the transition point as the last step, before going back into the community,” he said.
The home, he said, does not change the commission’s plan of getting the long-term care facility completed.
“That’s going to be a major contribution to the overall mental health system in the Cayman Islands, bringing back people that are overseas, and going a long way to improving mental health overall. So, this in no way deters us or dilutes our drive forward to get that long-term care facility open,” he added.
Dr. Arline McGill, HSA Department of Psychiatry head and vice chair of LOUD Silent Voices, said the home will have space for five women and four men and will have strict criteria for admission.
“The criteria reflect that the person has to be an adult, so they have to be 18 years or older. They have to have a mental illness background and have a treatment team that we can actually refer to,” she said, noting the home would take referrals for admission and staff would be consulting with the treatment professionals “to determine how to move forward” with the clients.
In addition, residents at the group home must have the capability to work and the desire to better themselves and be able to do so.
McGill said it was “fantastic” to see the home coming to fruition as it has been something sorely lacking for local mental health patients in the transition stage before rejoining the community.
“We have been so concerned about this type of client for years. We’re very happy to have the other houses that deal with our substance users, and we’re very happy to have a long-term facility [for] our more chronic patients, but [these clients] have the hardest time. Sometimes the problem is that they have to be in an acute unit for a lot longer than necessary because we are trying to sort out housing for them. So, this is going to be a solution to that problem,” she said.
HSA community psychiatric nurse Dympna Carten is also involved with the group home project and is looking forward to the benefits the community will derive from its opening.
“This has been needed for a very, very long time. I’ve been working in mental health in the Cayman Islands for the last 23 years and many of our individuals, many of our patients, are disenfranchised because they have nowhere to go. There’s nowhere that’s a kind of a halfway house between a hospital, if you’re recovering from an acute episode, to a home and this really is a halfway house, so it’s a tremendous stepping stone,” she said.
For more information or to get involved with LOUD Silent Voices, call Jackie Neil at 922-3847 or email [email protected]