Mental Issues Plague Many In Trinidad

It is estimated that some five per cent of this country’s school population—which comprises some 250,000 students—face serious mental challenges, some of which may include suicidal tendencies.

But even more disturbing than this is the fact that there are not enough facilities to house children with mental issues, with the resultant effect being some of them end up with the adult population at the St Ann’s Mental Hospital.

The issues were brought to the fore during yesterday’s Joint Select Committee meeting on mental health services and facilities provided for children in Parliament.

The committee was chaired by Independent Senator Dr Dhanayshar Mahabir, who asked how many children from the five per cent were detected and referred for treatment. But none of the officials from the Health Ministry, Education Ministry, T&T Association of Psychologists (TTAP) or Children’s Authority could provide the answers as there was no proper collation regarding data.

Guidance Officer II Amanda Pedro said of the five per cent, some children may also face environmental challenges which require intervention.

Children’s Authority director Safiya Noel said over the last two and a half years they had conducted intervention plans for some 360 children, of which 137 presented with some sort of mental illness.

But MP for Toco/Sangre Grande Glenda Jennings-Smith called on the officials to “get real” and simply present the facts. She asked how many children deemed to be mentally ill in the school system were either sent to the authority or the courts, adding she did not want percentages.

Special Education teacher Leticia Rodriguez-Cupid said data showed that 243 students were referred to the Student Support Services who fell in the category of having mental health issues. A large percentage of this, she said, were children diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and 54 were diagnosed with various emotional disorders.

Rodriguez-Cupid said there were other students who may have co-morbid disorders, which included ADHD and emotional difficulties adding, “That number is not disaggregated but that number is a lot larger… 476.”

Jennings-Smith called on officials to say what plans were in place to deal with this “critical situation” given the present economic challenges.

TTPA president Dr Margaret Nakhid-Chatoor said for such “action plans” to be implemented there must be “policy and law.” But she added there was the need for better data collection.

“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…that is the real situation,” Nakhid-Chatoor said.

She said in 2011 the association proposed a plan to address the issues but neither money nor approvals were given.

Permanent Secretary for the Health Ministry, Richard Madray, said the Paediatric Unit of the Eric Williams Medical Sciences Complex, Mt Hope, was to be provided with four additional beds some time next year to cater to mentally challenged children.

Regarding school intervention, Chief Education Officer Harrilal Seecharan said within the next two to three years all students, beginning with Standard One, are to be screened for mental illness.

This piece was originally published in The Guardian by Nadine Geisha Kowlessar