As Suicides Rise, Documentary and Discussion Highlight Gaps in Guyana's Mental Health Approach

The Society Against Sexual Orientation Discrimination (SASOD) in partnership with Depressed Black Gay Men (DBGM), Inc., with support from the United States Agency for International Development – Advancing Partnerships and Communities Project hosted a screening and discussion on the widely-acclaimed documentary “You Are Not Alone” on Wednesday, August 26, 2015 at the Dutch Bottle Café in Georgetown.
Attendees engrossed in the film
The documentary, breaking a taboo in the Black and Black gay communities, was screened at a time when the numbers of suicides in Guyana continue to rise. As a film looking at depression, often an immediate precursor to suicide, it explored and provided a backdrop for many who attended the screening to learn about the underlying factors, such as culture, that contribute to the high rate of suicide in Guyana. Although the film, produced by US-based Guyanese Antoine Craigwell, looks at the factors leading to Black gay men experiencing and descending into depression and thoughts of suicide, attempts and completion, many of the issues expressed found ready applicability to the Guyanese socio-cultural context. The film shines a light on issues that have, for years, remained hidden and unaddressed, which often lead to alcoholism, drug abuse, sexual risk taking behaviour and contracting HIV– as passive suicidality and eventually an active suicide, such as hanging, shooting, cutting or drinking pesticide. In the documentary, interviews with those who suffered and struggled with depression were blended with opinions provided by mental health practitioners, who placed the stories in context and relevance, and re-enactments of the stories. The film reveals aspects of society’s dark underbelly, exposing some of the most pernicious and destructive issues in many families and communities, including the denial of a person's sexual identity and orientation, sexual abuse and trauma, religiously-influenced homophobia, discrimination, stigma and ostracism; an HIV diagnosis with its attendant stigmas and discrimination, and the isolation and loneliness experienced by older Black gay men. Of particular significance is the prevalence of religiously-fueled homophobia against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) Guyanese, who because of these vulnerabilities are more susceptible to mental health stressors than their heterosexual counterparts. It is necessary to include and address these specific issues in the national response to mental health in Guyana.
Following the film screening, Craigwell, an award-winning journalist, founder of DBGM, and producer and executive producer of the film, participated in a post-screening discussion with the attendees. Among the topics discussed, were the effects that rejection or non-acceptance that LGBT persons suffer from their families can often lead to depression. Craigwell noted the significance of acceptance and reminded the attendees that a person's acceptance of self is dependent on the acceptance he or she receives from those in his or her family, community and society, a fundamental for all human beings. He underscored the enormous impact of rejection and its link to depression and ultimately suicidal thoughts. The issue of religion as a contributing factor was raised by several attendees, and in response Craigwell addressed the damaging effect of negative words and scriptural references, whether Christian or Muslim, on LGBT people. Another issue that sparked considerable conversation was the issue of child sexual abuse and its link to depression and suicide. It was noted that there is need to examine cultural practices that are acceptable but are in actuality forms of child sexual abuse, such as the "initiation" or "rite of passage to manhood" for boys around 12-years old, who would be taken to the local brothel for their first sexual experience with, often, an adult sex worker. These are done, without regard to the boys' emerging sense of sexual identity. Coming out of that conversation was also the need to discuss the myth that child sexual abuse “causes” or leads to homosexuality among male survivors especially.
Craigwell engaging the audience in the post screening discussion
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) 2014 report, Guyana has the highest suicide rate per capita, that is, an estimated 44 suicides per 100,000 people. Yet, of the number of suicides, unknown is how many of the victims were struggling with acceptance of their sexual identity and orientation. The stigma against being same-gender loving is often a significant obstacle to overcome when identifying issues which likely contributed to a person's suicide. The WHO has predicted that by 2020, depression is likely to become the second leading cause of disability in the world. This film screening and discussion, coming on the heels of the suicide conference held last Friday by Caribbean Voice, and recent reports of another suicide, focused on the link between homophobia, HIV and suicide in addressing mental health issues. There were several recommendations, including the urgent need for more trained professionals – counselors, psychologists, and social workers – who understand the cultural and ethnic dynamics of mental health in Guyana, the need for more community engagement, and more information and education on depression, suicide and other mental health issues. Craigwell asserted that when communities are knowledgeable and informed, then families can begin to be actively involved in suicide prevention.