Ignorance and violence Editorial
Stabroek News
May 5, 2007

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Last week's brutal murder of a mentally ill woman in Bare Root, East Coast Demerara is a tragic example of the direction this country has been moving in for the past decade or more. Earlier claims that Radika Singh, who had suffered from mental illness for some five years and was disabled as well, was believed to be a legendary blood-sucking creature, were an excuse for ignorance and violence.

And this is not only a Bare Root problem. It is endemic, particularly in rural Guyana. Any stranger wandering into a rural community had better be able to explain him/herself properly or s/he is likely to be beaten and chased out or worse. Radika Singh's was not the first such death, though it is certainly the most bizarre to date. There have been instances in the not too distant past where people have been found dead in different areas and villagers would claim that they were there to steal or had been caught stealing.

No one could claim this about Mrs Singh. She was a mentally disturbed woman who was on medication and may not have taken it for a while. She was confused and disoriented; she most likely had no idea where she was. Reports were that when she was questioned she mumbled something that sounded like 'Non Pariel' or 'Mon Repos'. Maybe she was on her way to one of those villages. Perhaps she was asking to be taken there. What she received instead of compassion, or an attempt to understand her plight, were broken arms and legs and a broken body; there were even attempts to burn her.

The first day the story broke, there were several people willing to talk about how Mrs Singh might have entered the village of Bare Root and what she had done while there. Strangely, though, even as they spoke, they could provide no evidence of the woman's reported misdeeds because there were none. In fact, the only thing Radika Singh did wrong was to wander into a village where ignorance abounds.

Radika Singh's murder also lays bare the deficiencies in Guyana's mental health programme. Mental patients such as Mrs Singh should have a place which offers them care and support; live-in facilities should also be available if needed. And it would appear that Radika Singh would have needed such support from time to time. Neighbours reported that there were times when she was "alright" and would cook and do various household tasks, at other times she just wandered off. Her family - husband and one son - would have been at a loss as to how to deal with this. They too needed support, which clearly is not available.

Not only is the mental health programme deficient, but so too is ignorance of the issue. Many people still do not know what they can do and where they can go for help with this problem. In addition, mental illness still has a great deal of stigma attached to it as well and for this reason it is often covered up though its incidence is steadily rising in Guyana.

Since 2001, Minister of Health Dr Leslie Ramsammy had announced that a director of mental health would have been appointed and that each hospital would have had a psychiatrist on staff to effectively deal with the burgeoning problem of mental health in Guyana. This has not yet happened.

Last year, the minister said the Ministry of Health was designing a new mental health plan to tackle the serious suicide problem, identify depression as a disease and see the training of mental health professionals to be strategically placed around the country. The plan should have taken effect in January this year, but so far there have been no announcement of any new initiatives with regard to mental health, save for the minister's revelation when he outlined the ministry's work plan, that mental health was a major aspect of the plan.

He said a mental health policy had been agreed, a Mental Health Unit would be established at the ministry some time this year and the current referral mental health programmes at the Georgetown Public Hospital and the National Psychiatric Hospital at Berbice would be upgraded.

As the record shows these statements were being made since 2001, it is time for action.

Meanwhile, three persons have been charged with the murder of Mrs Singh and will be duly tried. But there are others who stood by and watched her brutal murder and did not try to stop it, even though they would have known it was wrong. These people are just as guilty as whoever would have wielded the implements used to batter the woman and should come forward and testify in her case.