THE TRAGEDY that unfolded on Sunday in Freeport, involving a man who is mentally ill murdering a male relative in his sleep, was not the outcome solely of short-term or overnight factors. Instead, it highlights the long-term public-health challenges that arise when dealing with mental health. We should all be concerned.
Though we cannot and should not single out one party for blame, a crucial part of the difficulty is the clear gap that exists within the training of police officers and first responders. They are often called to a scene without the tools necessary to provide meaningful interventions.
“Our training isn’t and hasn’t been expanded to deal with the mentally-ill at this point in time,” bluntly admitted Gideon Dickson, the head of the Police Service Social and Welfare Association, this week. “We often have to engage other authorities to act and we provide some sort of support.”
The results of this are dramatically mixed, sometimes incredibly harrowing.
In April 2018, police shot and killed Colin Roopchand, 26, who lived with a mental health issue, in La Romain after he attacked his mother and allegedly threatened them with a knife.
In July 2018, police shot and killed Kevin Lewis, 29 in St Ann’s after he allegedly attacked a group of officers from the Port of Spain Division with a cutlass.
A few months later, in December, police also shot and killed Roger Nagessar, another a person with mental illness, who was wielding a cutlass in Friendship Village.
Police have been criticised for not taking more definitive action in relation to Sunday’s case. Relatives say police failed to arrest or take the suspect for treatment last Thursday after he acted out, attacking Mr Gopie and his wife.
However, police suggest the situation was more nuanced than that, with the suspect reportedly withdrawing consent to being taken away when the officers arrived last week. Processes to bring a patient to treatment were not invoked.
The finger pointing can go in all directions. And when they involve reports of domestic violence, these cases are even more troubling and tragic.
The general issue is that the State is currently ill-suited for treating, rehabilitating and managing mentally ill people. Such a task often falls to families who are even less equipped.
In a culture that is not sensitive to mental health needs generally and even less empathetic when it comes to understanding more extreme manifestations of them, it is challenging to have the multi-sectoral co-operation, co-ordination and support necessary to ensure patients are properly cared for and people not placed at risk.
We hope this case serves as a reminder of the need for all stakeholders to pay even greater attention to these issues.