Oral Gibbes puts mental illness in the spotlight Association fights against taboo

POSTED: 03/12/14 6:48 PM

St. Maarten / By Hilbert Haar* – Mental illness is a growing problem worldwide and St. Maarten is no exception. Oral Gibbes Live dedicated its TV-program on Monday to the Mental Health Caregivers and Patients Association (MHCPA) – an organization set up last year to support caregivers and patients and to increase awareness.

“Many people do not feel comfortable with mental illness,” Oral Gibbes said on the program, and MHCPA-President Claire Elshot agreed. “Mental health problems do not happen overnight,” she said. “Sometimes you see things in children from the time they are young, but it often goes undetected. Schools do not know how to detect this and how to refer cases, and teachers are not aware of certain disorders that cause a certain type of behavior. But when it reaches a point where you cannot deal with in anymore, then you have a crisis. The more people that are concerned about this, the more help these patients will be able to get.”

Elshot said that raising awareness and developing systems for early detection might help to stem the increase of mental illness in our society.

“Mental health is a bit of a taboo,” MHCPA-secretary Myriam Haar said on the program. It is not only a growing problem in St. Maarten, it is happening all over the world. I work with children that are on the autism spectrum – kids that have ADD or ADHD (Attention Deficit Disorder or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder –ed.). Being on a small island, we do not always have the means at our disposal, as they would have in the United States, to detect and address the problem in a proper manner. We have very nice child psychologists and psychiatrists on the island but they are probably overwhelmed like all of us.”

The MHCPA-secretary said that there are four times as many boys as there are girls on the autism spectrum, and five times as many boys that have ADD or ADHD.

“The education system is not geared towards these children. They need a different education from what they currently receive in our schools. A lot of them are undetected but they are still in the traditional education system.”

Oral Gibbes mentioned the case of parents with an autistic child that had to leave the island in the interest of the child.

“There are more children with this diagnosis that we think,” Myriam Haar said. “They are not detected, and not reported. This is a growing phenomenon around the world. In 1986 one in 250 children was diagnosed on the spectrum, in 2000 it was one in 150, in 2004 one in 100 and now we are looking at one in every 50 children.”

“Doctors are over-prescribing medication for these children in the United States,” Oral Gibbes interjected. “Do we run the same risk here?”

Myriam Haar said that the cases she knows in St. Maarten are indeed medicated. “However, there are other ways to treat them, but the tendency in the world has been to medicate. But there are side effects.”

President Claire Elshot added that the objective of the association is to advise the government, to raise awareness in the community, to deal with the stigma and to support families and caregivers. “It is also time to look at special education, at classrooms with the tools they need. We cannot afford to lose more teachers due to the stress this causes.”

Secretary Myriam Haar addressed a remark National Alliance MP Lloyd Richardson made in a central committee meeting in September of last year. The MP advised families with children suffering from autism or for instance Down Syndrome to “move to a developed country” because they would have better facilities there to see to the needs of their children.

“I heard MP Richardson say that people who have autism have to leave the island and look for care elsewhere. I thought – these are our children you are talking about. What is going on here? What message are you sending to the community?”

Oral Gibbes: “That was an ignorant remark and it should not be made by an elected official at all.”

Haar was not done yet with MP Richardson’s remark: “What are we, animals? We send them off island when they become a problem. We only take people here that have no problems? And where do we send them?”

Editor’s note:

For transparency’s sake, we note here that MHCPA-Secretary Myriam Haar is married to the author, Today’s Editor-in-Chief Hilbert Haar

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