Peeping Tom
Kaieteur News
April 18, 2007

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Whenever rural folks come to the city, one of their first observations is about the large number of vagrants and mentally-ill persons that can be found roaming the capital.

While not all of those destitute and living on the streets can be said to be suffering from mental illness, we often are confronted with the observation that, Georgetown gat a lot of mad people.

And that is to great extent true. There is a great many persons to be found on our streets who are not in full control of their mental faculties.

Sometimes these persons can be a threat like, for instance, the time when a mentally ill man threw a coconut at the head of a citizen and the blow led to the citizen's death. But in the main, these persons offend no one.

Walking the streets of Georgetown , one will not have much trouble in identifying those who are mentally ill and those who are simply destitute.

During CWC 2007, the mentally ill and destitute formed part of Guyana 's attraction since I doubt whether those foreigners who came here have ever seen in their hometowns such a high incidence of mentally ill and destitute persons on the streets.

Until such time as we address this issue of mentally ill persons on our streets, we are going to have an image problem in this country.

Unfortunately the law does not allow these persons simply to be picked up and institutionalised.

The mentally ill living on our streets was one of the issues that the Peeper had hoped would have been addressed for CWC 2007.

However, like the traffic lights, potable water supply, the car park at the stadium and like the medians on the four- lane road leading to the stadium, the destitute problem was not satisfactorily addressed by the authorities as Guyana hosted CWC 2007.

The problem of mentally-ill persons is not confined to any area. In some rural towns and communities there are increasing numbers of beggars but the number of destitute is not as large as that to be found in the city.

This is in part due to the fact that while poverty is more intense in rural communities, family support systems are stronger and in many instances families keep the mentally ill in doors.

In Berbice, there is a mental institution but it has been known in the past for a number of inmates of this institution to be seen walking around New Amsterdam . I am not sure what obtains today but I am sure that there are persons in need to treatment and in need of being institutionalised who are not receiving treatment.

The large numbers of supposedly mentally ill persons roaming the streets remain a major national concern, if just from a humanitarian point of view. But of even greater concern are those who are suffering from various degrees of mental illness but who do not know that they are so suffering.

The average citizen may not always be able to identify mental illness.

There are some people in high positions, working in offices, some whom are rich and well-established who suffer from mental illnesses, and while it is common to see us run down the mentally ill who are destitute and living on the streets, we must always bear in mind that mental illness knows no class boundaries.

We must therefore take mental illness seriously. And we will because of that terrible massacre that occurred in that college dormitory in Virginia , USA . This is a terrible tragedy that will ignite once again the debate on mental illness.

My heart goes out to the friends and families of the thirty-two students and teachers slain by one of their colleagues who it is suspected was suffering from some form of mental impairment.

My heart goes out the people of Virginia who are reeling from the shock of this incident. I extend to the American Ambassador and to all Americans, my sympathy. This is a terrible human tragedy that will, if what is being alleged is true, throw the spotlight once again on mental illness.

I want to say this. We must be careful about knee-jerk reactions.

We must not classify all persons who are mentally ill as violent because in the vast majority of cases, most of the persons suffering from mental disease pose no physical threat to anyone. We must not stigmatise those suffering from mental illness which is a disease that is treatable and curable.

What we must do if we are the learn from this terrible incident in Virginia is to take note of mental illness because it is one of those illnesses that does not in Guyana command the sort of attention that it ought to.

Let us treat the mentally ill like we would treat any sick person, with love and care, with sympathy and with understanding believing that through our actions we can make a difference in their lives.

Let us not allow this terrible tragedy in Virginia to make us resentful and less considerate of those who more than anything need our help.