Written by Christine Samwaroo
In Guyana, we observe our Independence and the arrival of the Indentured Servants in the month of May. Internationally, this month is known as Mental Health Awareness Month and on May 28th, we observe Menstrual Health Day. This year, Guyana celebrates its fifty-sixth (56) Independence anniversary. As Guyanese, we have experienced many forms of exploitation from colonial rule. We are the direct descendants of enslaved persons and indentured servants. Acknowledging our painful past gives us a clear picture of the future and the current realities of mental health in our country.
As a fairly new democracy, our citizens are still facing the side effects of the past. Gaining independence did not mean a complete wash away and renewal of our wounds caused by colonial rule. Instead, it resulted in a shift away from our ancestral practices to European ways of living. We see clearly today the impacts of capitalism and the lasting effects of adopting practices of what is deemed to be ‘right’ according to European standards. We see this through the shift in how we use products compared to our ancestors. When it comes to the conversation of menstrual equity, for instance, the conversation around access and safe period products is now becoming widespread.
“We have been using cloth pads for generations and generations. Disposables only came about in the last century. So, although cloth pads are now being looked at by those as weird and foreign, it’s really not. Our ancestors used this and now we have the technology to create fabrics that are even more absorbent, even more, sensitive to skin. I wanted to say if this is something that can be made here [in Trinidad], let’s do it and show people that we can use Indigenous knowledge and reclaim the knowledge for ourselves.” - Amy Li Bakshi, Founder of The Lilypads Project
When it comes to the conversation on mental health, we see clearly the linkages with the annual records of high rates of suicide, childhood abuse, homicides, and gender-based violence. For a country with a significantly small population, these rates are alarming. Despite this, speaking out on mental health is still largely stigmatized within the country. Although there are a few free mental health services available, it is not enough to address this country-wide problem.
Even in the conversation on menstrual equity, mental health plays a role. Capitalism and a rejection of one’s own cultural practices and of themselves result in various forms of trauma.
“Creating reusable pads is something that our ancestors used and was available and we moved away to disposable, and now we have to do a societal change again.”- Afeefa Richardson, Digital Communications Manager, The Breadfruit Collective
For most people, they are not at a place where they are willing to be vulnerable and ready to peel off the layers and speak about the many burdens they carry. Additionally, despite reports showing the need for mental health support, people are still not aware of the services that exist and the support in the country. The COVID-19 pandemic has also created ripple effects on the social, economic, and mental well-being of persons. Recovering from the pandemic means a closer look at the resilience of our medical system and that should include the mental health services we have available in Guyana. Mental health should be prioritized and counselors should be available to persons in schools and workplaces. Access to mental health services should not be seen as a luxury but as an investment in the development of the country and its people.
Guyana is at a pivotal point in its development. The pandemic has awakened the world on what governments need to do to create a sustainable society for its citizens. Taking care of our infrastructure includes equipping our citizens with the best care possible for them to carry out their lives. It means acknowledging the past and creating spaces for persons to heal. Mental Health Awareness Month calls to look at our habits and lifestyles. It calls on us to find the tools that can help us navigate the world, to learn and unlearn coping skills, acknowledging that the way we see the world comes from the way we were raised, and the pains and strengths of our ancestors. It may take some unlearning to get back in touch with our bodies and emotions.
“Slowing down and being present with your body, we do not take enough time to do it, especially around menstruation.” - Amy Li Baksh, Founder of The Lilypads Project
Understanding our mental health, allows us to be compassionate toward others, to be more empathic, and to care for other beings. Being mentally conscious also means becoming aware of our role on the Earth and understanding the realities of exploitation that is currently taking place on the planet. It means looking at how we address stigmas in our communities and working against them.
“We need to look at the issues holistically. We need more people doing the work. We have to understand that period poverty and issues of injustices are not buzz words for politicians to co-op. It’s time to make the period conversation normal and comprehensive. When we are talking about equity, the period conversation can be a part of it and when we are talking about the environment, the period conversation should be a part of it.” - Christine Samwaroo, Founder of The Breadfruit Collective