Death to the mentally ill
Kaieteur News
May 2, 2007

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The killing of a woman of unsound mind in Bare Root, under the pretext that she was a mythical figure called Ole Higue, raises serious questions about the sanity of the Guyanese society. In the first instance, it tells us that the folk culture is alive and well and superstition abounds.

What makes this situation even more dangerous in this fragile society is the fact that the woman was of East Indian ancestry and that she was killed in a predominantly black society. Already there are talks of racism, but given the fact that superstition is so rife, one would be wise to shun any talk of a racial killing.

This is not the first person of unsound mind to be killed under strange circumstances. Neither is she the first person of one ethnic group to be killed by a society that comprises people predominantly of another ethnic group.

Just a few short years ago, some people killed a man of African ancestry under the pretext that he had gone there to steal.

Racial stereotyping played a great role in the second killing. Our society has been led to believe that people of African ancestry who visit Indian communities after dark do so for the purpose of stealing. Although people of every ethnic group are known to be thieves, the view predominates that more likely than not the thieves would be people of African ancestry.

To fuel this belief is the fact that most of the people in the country's largest prison are black people. No one considers that economic and social conditions help contribute to this fact; that many of the people in the jail are there because they cannot post bail as easily as people of other ethnic groups.

We have already discussed the bail policy, and we have said that bail was never intended to be punitive. It is merely to secure the attendance of the accused in court. However, while a magistrate may believe that he or she is affixing reasonable bail to a person, what may be reasonable for one person may not actually be so for another, hence the large crowds in jail.

To make matters worse, the courts no longer appear to be taking collateral, choosing instead to take cash. The British, whose jurisprudence we have inherited, have long done away with cash bail for the very reason that Guyana has so many people in jail. One British jurist actually said that if the society were to insist on cash bail, then only the rich would be free to walk the streets pending their trials.

A leading politician, now dead, once said that Guyana has an oral tradition. In poor societies, people do not have the disposable income to go to the flashy places, so they gather in their groups within the community and talk. It would not be surprising that the conversations would centre on the myths and superstitions.

This may explain why, in this day and age, people in a civilized society could believe that a human being was a creature with the ability to shed her skin and fly away in a ball of fire to feast on some child. In this day and age, in a civilized society, no one has stopped to think about how this mythical fireball could enter a home that has all its windows and doors locked and attack a child that may be sleeping close to its parents without disturbing the parents.

A woman of unsound mind is dead, and her relatives are left to mourn and to contemplate the stupidity of the people in this country.

But there is more. The society has failed to deal with people who suffer from mental illness. Because the relatives do not understand the nature of mental illness, they are more likely to sit back and let the person deteriorate, opting to seek medical services under the most acute conditions.

And more often than not, they seek the services of a general practitioner, who would simply prescribe something to make the person sleep. The illness remains and the person gets no better.

It is true that the services of a psychiatrist do not come cheap. At the same time, the procedure to have someone committed is tedious. One must involve the courts.

The death of this old woman should be a wake-up call to the people in the health sector that all is not well. Perhaps we need to evaluate our health care system as it relates to mental health, and in the process, take steps to ensure that no other person of unsound mind is killed like a wild animal.