Minister of Justice meets with mental health entities to unify efforts in addressing mental health issues on Sint Maarten

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Philipsburg, Sint Maarten — On Tuesday, April 6th, 2021, representatives of various entities responsible for the treatment & care of persons with mental health concerns on the island met at the request of the Minister of Justice, Ms. Anna E. Richardson. The meeting was requested by the Hon. Minister as an urgency due to an evident rise of mental health reports and sightings on the island.

In attendance were; Clinical Psychologist; Dr. Judith Arndell, Chief Corps Police Sint Maarten; Mr. Carl John, President of Board & Interim Director of Turning Point; Dr. Lloyd Richardson, Ministry of VSA Legal Advisor; Lyndon Lewis, Interim Director of Mental Health Foundation; Ms. Kitty Pelswijks, Drug Addiction Counselor; Mrs. Tasheena Thomas, Board Member of Directors of Turning Point; Mr. Clarence Richardson and support staff of the Minister.

Over the past weeks, the Minister has been made aware of multiple reports and sightings of persons engaging in violent conduct and wandering the streets in a disorientated manner as a possible result of substance abuse. The Minister stated that it was brought to her attention that a new drug known as Fentanyl – a powerful synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent – has now become an available drug being used by substance abusers on the island.

“I am not an expert in this area, which is why I requested this meeting with all the relevant parties to build a better understanding of what we’re dealing with and figure out what needs to be done to mitigate the situation that has been plaguing the community for a long time”, stated the Minister.

The Minister recognizes work executed by the Mental Health Foundation, Turning Point, and independent Professionals – have been doing over the past years and the impact that they’ve had on our community. The Minister further stated that, “while I do know, and we all know, that financial limitations has been a driving force as to why a lot more can’t and hasn’t been done yet, it’s imperative that we solidify a unification of all entities along with the support of the Ministry of Justice”.

Chief John indicated that in the past months there has been a surge in calls to the Police related to mental health. Over a span of 4 months, the police received over 65 phone calls reporting incidents and sightings of persons that appeared to be under the influence of some form of hallucinogen. A breakdown of the numbers showed that in January 2021, the Police received 23 calls, 18 calls in February, 21 calls in March, and 6 calls in April thus far, triggering an urgency for measures to be taken. Chief John emphasized that one of the shortcomings that officers are facing is not being properly equipped and trained to handle persons with mental health issues.

“Having the appropriate training and being properly equipped is essential for the safety of both the officers and the person(s) living with a mental health disorder. Whenever an officer is confronted with such a person, the Mental Health Foundation is contacted to provide assistance and their expertise. The Police Force and Mental Health Foundation has been building a working relationship over the years and thus far has proven to be an effective one”, concluded Chief John. Chief John hopes that in time all officers will be trained to properly manage situations when confronted with a person with mental health issues.

“Mental health issues and disorders have been increasing on Sint Maarten since 2020 due to COVID-19. There are a number of factors that influence this increase in cases over the past year, most of which are a direct impact of the current pandemic. What’s to note is that the Mental Health Foundation is not only recording challenges with known clients, but also noticing an increase in new clients. One of the biggest challenges we face as an institute with new clients is not being able to issue medication or treatment due to lack of their medical history. Not being able to test if the person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol makes it difficult to administer any form of medicated help which results in a delay in the start of medicinal treatment process. Another related issue is the lack of secure space for clients to effectively provide proper health service”, stated The Mental Health Foundation.

Currently, the Mental Health Foundation is limited to one facility in which there is only one crisis room, making it a complex process when dealing with different forms of mental health issues & crises clients.

The Interim Director of Turning Point, Dr. Lloyd Richardson, also emphasized the issues that Turning Point has faced and are still facing over the years. Because of laws and financial constraints, Turning Points faces limitations that prohibits them from acting in their full capacity, stated by Dr. Richardson. Turning Point currently faces obstacles that prohibits them from being able to fully care for their clients as an entity and which also obstructs a working relationship with the Mental Health Foundation. Dr. Lloyd hopes that this meeting will be “a start to something good” for their clients: a structure designed in such a way that it guarantees continuity.

On behalf of the Minister of Public Health, Social Development & Labor (VSA), Mr. Lyndon Lewis, the Cabinet Legal Advisor, has expressed the concerns shared also by the Ministry of VSA. Mr. Lewis reiterated on the fact that “it is imperative that the Police Force is trained to be able to professionally handle encounters with mental health persons.

The Ministry of VSA is committed to addressing the issue at hand and supports the idea of revisiting laws which can be amended to facilitate the effective functioning of the Mental Health Institutes.

The Minister was pleased with the discussion that took place. Having all the respective entities at the table allowed for a constructive dialogue to manage this current crisis we are facing in our community. It was made clear that all parties involved shared the same concerns and interest to tackle the problem at hand. As stated by the Mental Health Foundation, “what is important is that we look further than just fixing the problems of now. We need to focus on finding out the causes of the problem so that we can implement preventative measures”.

As the final point of the meeting, the Minister emphasized the importance of forming a committed alliance between all entities present at the meeting, stating that “a lack of finances cannot and should not be our limitation. We need to work together, for this is a priority”. All entities were then tasked by the Minister to research within their expertise the current mental health issues on the island along with advice as to how these measures can be tackled – amending laws to facilitate the entities being a main step.

Another agenda point brought up by the Minister was focusing on drug & alcohol abuse by youths. All entities came to a unanimous agreement to creating a task-force proposed by the Minister which reinforces a commitment by all parties. The topic of youth drug & alcohol abuse will be discussed during the next meeting along with a formal agreement being recognized. At current, this new alliance will be meeting at least once per month to discuss mental health issues along with providing solutions on how to mitigate this problem.