UG’s new nursing programme to address mental health challenges

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Guyana’s growing mental health challenges have been a cause for concern over the years. Apart from being consistently ranked by the World Health Organisation (WHO) among the top five countries with the highest suicide rate, 20 percent of Guyana’s population suffers from mental health issues.

Recognising the dire need to build mental health capacity, the University of Guyana (UG), through its College of Medical Sciences, on Tuesday launched its mental health nursing programme – Bachelor of Science in Mental Health Nursing.

Describing Tuesday’s launch as historic, the Director of UG’s Nursing School, Dr Noel Holder, has said the programme had been in the making for several years.

According to Holder, mental health services in Guyana are sporadic, and not functioning in some areas, even though there are several mental health issues.

“We have no nurse who is trained in mental health or psychiatric nursing at the bachelor’s level. Nursing care at the National Psychiatric Referral Hospital is provided mainly by trained psychiatric patient care assistants,” he said.

He added that in a 2018 study by the World Health Organization, Guyana was cited as the country with the third-highest suicide rate – 29 deaths per 100,000 inhabitants. That same study, he noted, also highlighted that over one billion people globally struggle with issues related to mental health, including self-harm, depression and substance abuse.

“These are especially seen in low-income countries and Third World countries, where mental health services are fragmented,” he explained.

In Guyana’s case, the Nursing School Director pointed to the lack of research and policies for mental health, as well as barriers affecting persons seeking mental health services.
He added, “The stigma continues to exist in these mental health illnesses. It hinders the effort to provide appropriate mental health services. Poor mental health can contribute to a number of things…low productivity, weak civic society to high disease burden… all of these can lead to traumatic experiences.”

With the launch of the mental health nursing degree, Holder said, UG is aiming to have nurses who are trained in mental health to address the current shortage.

“We want to provide relevant and scientifically sound training, in keeping with global standards. We want to bridge the existing gap in mental health care, and to provide a continuous supply of trained mental health nurses in all 10 regions.”

In wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, he disclosed, Guyana, like the rest of the world, has experienced high levels of mortality and morbidity, which have affected families and individuals. He pointed out that the onset of the pandemic has also given rise to intimate-partner violence, gender-based violence, economic hardships, and lack of access to services.

In light of the foregoing, he noted, the introduction of the new nursing programme is timely, “because there is an imminent public health crisis waiting to happen in Guyana, as it has begun to show its head in the rest of the world.”

Moreover, he said it is hoped that the Government would purposefully award scholarships in this field to those nurses who fit the criteria, to help facilitate sustainable human resources.
Meanwhile, UG Vice-Chancellor Dr Paloma Mohamed-Martin has said the university is focused on offering programmes to enable people to be better in every way. According to her, the degree in mental health nursing is in addition to the diploma, degree, and master’s being offered in psychology, as well as the master’s in psychiatry and the diploma and degree in social work.

Mohamed-Martin disclosed that the university has created a mental health policy, something it has never had before, on how it should treat students and staff who have mental health issues. She explained that the policy has to lead to classification of mental health illnesses as disabilities within UG.

According to her, approval has been granted for a slew of mental health professionals to give support to UG’s counselling department, “to help to put teeth onto those policies; and then, of course, the newest one, which is still in draft, is our disabilities policy, which is called an inclusion policy which looks at physical and other disabilities, and, as I said, includes certain classes of mental health illnesses as disabilities.

“The university wants to be at the forefront of not only helping to create practitioners to help to solve these problems, but at the forefront of research. A lot is going on, a very fertile place for study… action, policy…and of course care and love. This is what we want to see come out of the university, spill into the nation, because what we do is create the best resources, both in terms of people, knowledge, and policy for our country in this area. It has been neglected for a long time,” the Vice-Chancellor added.