When people hear the word ‘mental health’ they tend to think of ‘crazy’ individuals.

Acting Director General (DG) of the Ministry of Health(MOH), Johnson Wabaiat made the remarks during the World Mental Health Day Awards Night at Ramada Resort on Thursday.

Mr Wabaiat says this is an attitude that needs to change as Vanuatu has developed strategies to deal with mental health conditions through awareness, assessment, prevention and cure.

DG Wabaiat says the World Health Organization (WHO) gave as a policy direction in 2004 which is being followed and carried out today. He says they have coordinators within the MOH and within the provinces to address mental health issues.

He encourages everyone to include people with mental illness in family activities and calls on communities to show support for such individuals.

Mr Wabaiat says chiefs and church leaders must also encourage their people as well to change their though process towards those with mental illness because we all can help to make a change because the heart, mind and soul must have peace and harmony at all times.

From a health worker’s point of view, Vila Central Hospital (VCH) Matron, Roger Jelpao explained that mental health in Vanuatu has come a long way since the condominium days. The first mental Health Act was the New Hebrides Mental Act of 1959. The French Government built the “Depo” Psychiatric Hospital also referred to as an Insane Asylum. This was located where the Origin Energy shop is today, across the road from Hibiscus Motel at Stade.

Conditions were harsh and patients were locked up and chained to the floor. They were never allowed visitors. After 1965, there were a few improvements as the view of mental health around the world was slowly changing. A few patients were being transferred back to the George Pompidou Hospital and in 1977, the Depo was closed.

After independence, VCH ran mental health clinics every Wednesday and in 2007, 47 mental patients were seen at VCH. Despite this improvement, Matron Jelpao says over 5,000 Ni-Vanuatu do not have access to proper mental health care and that a lot seem to turn to traditional medicine or religious exorcism as a study conducted in 2010 with several churches showed that on average,45% of each of the church congregations in the survey linked mental illness to demonic procession and saw exorcism as the only way out for them.

Matron Jelpao says in 2014, the Mind Care Clinic was opened at the southern end of the Medical Ward in VCH. Last year the clinic had 806 cases. Vanuatu also had its first psychiatrist, Dr Jimmy Obed from Emae followed by Dr Lawrence Hinge and at the moment they have Peter Napuat who is still studying in Fiji. Norah Simon also became Vanuatu’s first psychiatric nurse.

These motivates others to grow an interest in psychiatry and psychology. There groundbreaking work and ongoing efforts have also managed to gain extra funding and give themselves an opportunity to receive extra training.

Today the Mind Care Clinic at VCH has the capacity to see two patients at a time on a daily basis as there are full time staff always available. Mind Care does community outreach every Tuesday in an effort to reduce the stigma towards those who are mentally ill.

Director of the Department of Corporate Services, Policy and Planning, Dr. Posikai Samuel Tapo, says the brain is an amazing creation of God and explains that the hypothalamus at the base of the brain is responsible for the regulation of certain metabolic processes and other activities of the autonomic nervous system. The hypothalamus controls body temperature, hunger, important aspects of parenting and attachment behaviours, thirst, fatigue, sleep, and circadian rhythms.

Dr. Posikai says adults have to deal with stress and emotions responsibly and that children aged 5-13 need to be regularly asked how they are feeling so they can have access to help whenever they need it.

Since this year’s World Mental Health Day theme is “Suicide Prevention”, First Political Advisor (PA) to the MOH, Luna Tasong says 800,000 people worldwide have committed suicide and that the rate has increased in those aged 15-29 years which makes suicide the second highest case of death within that age range.

1st PA Tasong says a WHO survey in 2016 shows that 1 in 5 teenagers in Vanuatu aged 13-17 have either attempted suicide or thought of committing suicide. 70 % of suicide victims are men.

Mr Tasong believes old family ways must be revived and people should engage more in conversations with each other, especially between the parents and children and extended family. Those in danger of committing suicide are young and need to be shown love and affection at all time. That way it will get rid of negative thoughts they may have.

Since the school suicides at Tafea College and Hog Harbour Secondary School, teachers and principals have been encouraged to pay closer attention towards their students’ emotions. Central School has taken the first step and introduced a guidance counsellor into their school. From next year, they will also be teaching Family Life Education as a subject in their curriculum.

Marisia Vusonilawe, a Fijian English teacher and a trained guidance counsellor, teaches English at Central School from Monday to Thursday and counsels’ students on Fridays. Mrs Vusonilawe says suicide is a cry for help.

The veteran teacher speaks of her past experience over the years in Fiji and says the youngest suicide victim she came across was a nine-year-old boy at Marist School. She says suicide mostly takes place in day schools and she also explains that those who are more at risk to commit suicide tend to hide behind certain behaviours and always seem to look well on the outside.

She gives an example of a girl in Fiji who was such a good science student and always topping the class and being the best youth in her church in bible knowledge, however she hid certain feelings of depression behind all the smiles and success and surprised everyone when she committed suicide.

Mrs. Vusonilawe echoed Mr Tasong’s words and encourages more family based activities as she believes to really understand how our children feel, we really need to come down to their level to understand them well. That way, preventative measures can be taken before it’s too late as most young people will attempt to commit suicide at least twice before being successful the third time.

She says graffiti of any form shows that someone is in danger of committing suicide.

The World Mental Health Day was first celebrated in 1992 without a theme. From 1994 onwards, the theme for World Mental Health Day was introduced. The first theme was “Improving the Quality of Mental Health Services throughout the world.