In observance of the annual International Day Against Homophobia, Transphobia and Biphobia (IDAHOT) on May 17 and commemorating Mental Health Awareness Week 2016, the Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) hosted a Lunch Talk on Mental Health and Well Being for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Guyanese with discussions being led by Dr. Janice Jackson, Psychologist and retired University of Guyana lecturer; Leroy Adolphus, Policy and Advocacy Officer at the National Coordinating Coalition Inc (NCC); and Dr. Melissa Varswyk, Principal of Georgetown American University and Vice-Chair of Blue CAPS. The discussions were moderated by Ulelli Verbeke, Chairperson of SASOD's Board of Directors.
Guyana needs more mental health professionals
Given the scarcity of mental health professionals in Guyana which impedes access to services for LGBT people, Dr Melissa Varswyk made a call for vulnerable communities such as the LGBT Guyanese to form groups in civil society for policy and advocacy and community support like SASOD which she said can very influential in offering support for persons suffering with mental health conditions. This she said will not be easy initially but support mechanisms are essential for persons who are struggling. Dr. Varswyk expressed that there is a significant lack of trained mental health professionals in Guyana and on the policy side of things Guyana needs to focus heavily on investing in more skilled professionals such as psychiatrists and psychologists. According to the medical professional, a lot of students show interest in mental health and psychiatric specializations but Guyana does not have the human resources and necessary specialized training to fulfill the needs for these fields of study.
Participants at Lunch Talk (Photo credit: Neketa Forde)
Self-esteem important to mental health and well being
Dr. Jackson noted that given the self-stigma and internalized homophobia some LGBT people suffer due to ingrained societal prejudices it is important to know and find oneself, which is often times a struggle in anyone’s adolescent years. “Define for yourself who you are, know yourself both internally and externally.” She explained that an internal definition of oneself is what we know we feel, how we know we will respond and how we feel about ourselves; external definition is what others know from how we behave, what we express how we are as a result of external factors molding us throughout our lives. She expressed that many people are raised hearing words like “Children must be seen and not heard”, and “Boys should not cry,” etc. which may cause damaging effects, due to those negative external influences. “We are raised in a society where people are afraid to speak; they may internalize their feelings and then lash out and are often hushed from expressing themselves,” she noted. ”Finding oneself and being comfortable in one’s own skin are some strategies and coping mechanisms for anyone, especially LGBT people, to build their own self-esteem and improve their mental health and wellbeing,” Dr. Jackson added.
‘LGBT people are not a disease’
NCC Policy and Advocacy Officer Leroy Adolphus noted that civil society has a leading role to play in advocating for national awareness on mental health. ”Mental health illness is a national crisis,” he exclaimed. “Civil society needsto develop and implement community-based approaches which promote positive mental health and wellbeing for vulnerable groups, especially for LGBT Guyanese. Adolphus explained that homosexuality and transgenderism are viewed by many religious fundamentalists and conservatives as a disease without understanding human rights principles. Stigma and discrimination are abuses that affect the good mental health of LGBT persons; depression and anxiety are some of the negative impacts developed from such bigoted attitudes.“CSOs need to offer support, provide safe spaces and services to support our most vulnerable communities. There needs to be more conversations and dialogues. This is not just about LGBT rights. These are critical human rights issues and we need to approach this as a national crisis. Empowerment is also important to marginalised communities. This is critical for good self-esteem, mental health and well being,” Adolphus added.