Wed | Nov 29, 2023

UNICEF: More safe spaces, culture shift needed

Specialists concerned about child suicides, lack of safe spaces to discuss mental issues

Published:Tuesday | September 12, 2023 | 12:10 AMAsha Wilks/Gleaner Writer
Novia Condell, health specialist at UNICEF Jamaica, listens as Dr Kevin Goulbourne, director, mental health and substance use in the Ministry of Health & Wellness, makes a point during an interview on Monday.
Novia Condell, health specialist at UNICEF Jamaica, listens as Dr Kevin Goulbourne, director, mental health and substance use in the Ministry of Health & Wellness, makes a point during an interview on Monday.

WHEN IT comes to mental health challenges such as suicidal ideation, health specialists have expressed concern about the negative effects that the current generational gaps in society have on adolescents.

It is argued that the older generation is particularly dismissive of, and insensitive to, young people’s feelings of anxiety, stress, and prolonged sadness. When they try to voice their feelings and ask for help, they are said to, in some cases, experience rejection from friends and family.

In a discussion with Gleaner journalists yesterday at UNICEF Jamaica’s corporate offices, Novia Condell, health specialist at the organisation, explained that several adolescents who have been in dialogue with UNICEF have showed an unwillingness to speak with their parents, guardians or family members about their mental health challenges. This is because of their fear of judgement, being ignored or rejected, a lack of support and understanding and, in other instances, being the subject of unpleasant jokes.

“Often, it is also cultural [for us] to joke about sad feelings or to make some flippant comment about ‘how you are feeling’ – [but] that shouldn’t be,” she added.

UNICEF believes that, to tackle such issues, there needs to be a cultural shift in the way that Jamaicans respond to youth who experience suicidal ideation and are psychologically distressed.

Their objective is to not only work with children who are struggling with mental health challenges but to target their parents, teaching them how to understand their child’s needs and how important it is to adopt strategies that will foster effective communication.

They also seek to assist them in understanding how to help their child to cope and to understand what stress means for them.

“In general, what young people are telling us is that they are not taken seriously. A lot of our young folks are saying ‘when I say I’m depressed’, I get asked ‘wah me have fi depress fa’,” Condell said, noting that they often feel alone and abandoned as a result.

She added that some have resorted to suppressing their feelings as well, and that all these issues need to be dealt with and taken more seriously as the youth were keeping themselves away from receiving critical intervention.

September 10 was observed as World Suicide Prevention Day (WSPD), which was celebrated under the theme ‘Creating Hope Through Action’.

According to the State of the World’s Children Report 2021, nearly one in seven children and adolescents in Latin America and the Caribbean have a mental disorder.

At least 20 per cent of the Jamaican children have mental disorder, according to a UNICEF-commissioned desk review on child and adolescent mental health by Dr Kai Morgan, clinical psychologist.

Morgan stated that only eight per cent of those were being reached by mental health services.


Dr Kevin Goulbourne, director of mental health and substance abuse services of the Ministry of Health and Wellness, stated that parents’ response to adolescents with suicidal tendencies in the home need to be gentle and patient.

He continued that, when youngsters make suicidal utterances, it is to be taken very seriously and not to be viewed as attention-seeking behaviours, because it is a sign that there is an issue that the child is facing.

He said that more boys are reported to complete suicide attempts than girls, but that there are more girls who attempt suicide than boys, especially those between the ages of 10 and 19 years.

Approximately 17 per cent of youngsters who attempt suicide are females, he said.

Goulbourne said that, in Jamaica, completed suicides are executed mostly by hanging and, in other instances, by gunshot wounds and poisoning, methods used by males. For females, methods like overdosing on tablets and cutting of the wrists are more common.

“A lot of them don’t see the house as their safe space. So, whatever issues they are going through sometimes, the parents are the cause of the issue, or the parents would be the last to know about the issue. So, we really need to find some way to ... give the parents some resources so they can find a way to understand their children and how to deal with them in a very soft way,” said Rory Robert, centre manager for Teen Hub St Andrew.

Teen Hub is a youth and adolescent facility which creates a safe space for such individuals. The facility offers services such as mental health counselling, career counselling, and sexual reproductive health sessions, among other things.


Sharing from a youth’s perspective, Kelsey Spalding, a student at Ardenne High School and secretary of the Teen Hub club, lauded the programme, noting that it was one of the only places, aside from school, where one could go and find “like-minded people”, those struggling with similar issues, allowing them to know that they were not alone.

“You can also go and find people who will help us and talk to us and guide us throughout these issues we’re facing,” she said, sharing that, since being part of the organisation in last year April, her mental health has improved.

She explained that the perspective that adults have on suicide and youth need to be changed to ensure that they are not blaming the child, but are actually genuinely invested and interested in how they can assist in helping them.

“Parents will do the bare minimum like provide shelter and food and then just think that we’re supposed to just be okay with that. But life is just way more than the basic needs,” she reasoned.

UNICEF also hopes to get support for adolescents from the community and education institution level, to tackle mental health difficulties in society.

Condell said that UNICEF is actively trying to work with the education ministry, as well as the health ministry, to equip teachers with effective strategies on how to not only listen to affected students, but to be able to refer appropriately.

Data published in the Economic and Social Survey Jamaica released by the Planning Institute of Jamaica reports that 64 individuals were recorded to have taken their own lives in 2022, up from a 51 total in 2021.

Males accounted for 90.6 per cent of victims.

Health Minister, Dr Christopher Tufton, in his message published in The Sunday Gleaner for the observance of WSPD, stated that, since the start of 2023, a reported 52 individuals have committed suicide.

Continuing in his message, he encouraged persons dealing with issues of feeling distressed to ask for help, and urged others to take the time to listen to someone who needs to be heard. He added that safe spaces within the home, at work, and in communities where people feel it is okay to be vulnerable and are empowered to access available support, are also needed and, where they currently exist, it should be utilised.