Mental health services in the U.S. Virgin Islands are “the pits,” Dr. Derek Spencer, of Island Therapy Solutions, told members of the Senate Committee on Health, Hospitals, and Human Services Wednesday.
Spencer pointed a finger at a range of causes, from the lack of cohesiveness among government departments to “the scourge of marijuana use.” He maintained chronic psychotic disorders were caused by marijuana use.
He was speaking at a forum hosted by the committee on St. Thomas on the impact mental illness and other disabilities have on children, adults, and family members. A similar forum was held on St. Croix on Tuesday.
Panelist Archie Jennings of the Disability Rights Center of Virgin Islands told the senators that he watched the “demise of quality mental health care” in the territory in the 1990s.
But all the news was not bad. Gwen Williams, state director of the V.I. Health Services Advisory Group, said residents now have access to Telehealth at several locations – the two hospitals, Frederiksted Health Care, East End Medical Center and Department of Health. Through this program residents can video conference with stateside mental health professionals such as psychiatrists.
The Center for Connected Health Policy website says “Telehealth encompasses a broad variety of technologies and tactics to deliver virtual medical, health, and education services. Telehealth is not a specific service, but a collection of means to enhance care and education delivery.”
The program usually takes six months to set up, according to Williams, but because of the situation with the hurricanes it was set up in two months.
The V.I. Department of Health was also busy in the aftermath of the hurricanes. Berlina Wallace-Berube, from the Department of Health, said Beautiful Dreamers, which is administering its crisis Counseling program, had 1,784 individual counseling sessions, 57 group sessions and made 7,130 contacts concerning counseling.
“Often, there are people who gravitate towards substance abuse as a means of eradicating trauma,” according to Wallace-Berube. “The department provides a variety of counseling services that are confidential. However, there are people who shy away from receiving care because of the negative stigma attached to mental illness. There is nothing shameful about asking for help.”
Also on the panel were residents who had problems negotiating the mental health care system in the territory. Dawn O’Bryan said she was told by a psychiatrist at the hospital in early 2017 that her son could no longer be cared for there because he was “disruptive.” She said he was discriminated against because “he was no longer in control of his faculties.“ He died later that year. She said it was sad that Golden Grove was now a “repository” for those suffering mental problems.
Spencer said on the mainland education, health and social services work closely together to address the issue of mental health. However, this is not the case in the territory.
“People in power do not contribute sufficiently to this matter,” he said. “Mentally ill people should receive basic care and there is absolutely nothing here. There is no cohesiveness of services and medications to treat patients are very expensive.”
Jessica Whyte, assistant director at Beautiful Dreamers, said, “People should get services whether they can afford it or not.”
Sen. Janette Millin Young, co-chair of the committee, said, “Generally, people are moved by mental health because it touches the hearts of many. We are here tonight to contribute to this process.”
Some of the items addressed by panelists included how to identify warning signs and symptoms, exploring mental illness, trauma and substance abuse and practical ways to manage mental illness.