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MHWB Founding Member Reflects on Guyana’s ‘Mad House’ and the Power of Education

The following post was written by former Mental Health Without Borders (MHWB) board member, Rev Ram Kalap on his experiences travelling to Guyana with MHWB to provide supplementary education to medical practitioners.

I am an expatriate who left Guyana in 1997 and pursued my education in Canada.

I have returned to Guyana several times since then to visit family and connect with my heritage.

In 2013, I travelled to Guyana with a group of medical professionals to explore what we could do to improve the area of mental health education. We visited the National Psychiatric Hospital (NPH), and we were accompanied by a group of nursing students from the nation’s capital, Georgetown. This visit was a life changing experience in more ways than I thought possible. I was unaware and definitely not prepared for what I encountered at the National Psychiatric Hospital (NPH), also known locally as the ‘The Mad House.’

On our first visit, the student nurses were terrified to go into the facility. They huddled together and one of them expressed her fears and asked, “Will I catch what they have?” She further clarified that, mental illness is seen as demon possession and the fear is the evil spirit will enter her.

With our encouragement, she reluctantly entered the facility and as we engaged her in dialogue, she became relaxed and participated well.

The uninformed mentality about the mentally ill in Guyana is pervasive. Many Guyanese people, including the highly educated, general public and even those in the medical field, still hold the view that the mentally ill are not worth attention and should be avoided; hidden away. There are clients at the NPH whose family have not visited them since they were hospitalized - which can span weeks, if not months or longer.

As other medical professionals and I returned to Guyana annually, we provided mental health education sessions for interdisciplinary teams. I recalled in our early visits, there was a noted lack of participation by the nurses. On our visit in October 2019, we provided basic mental health nursing training and we had an average of 30 nurses in each of the two-hour long sessions (2hours x 3day). On October 25th, 2019, we visited the NPH and did a presentation and panel discussion, and later a question and answer session. I was stupendously surprised by what I saw. At the event, there were about 50 students and nurses in attendance. I thought to myself, “Wow! What a remarkable sight!” There were actual students at the NPH, also known as The Mad House.

I am elated with the changes that I have seen and I do believe leading by example and ongoing education will turn the tide of fear and ignorance about mental illness and the hope is that the mentally ill will be treated with respect by seeing the sacred in every person.

Rev Ram Kalap Bio:

Rev Ram Kalap has been a chaplain at Homewood Health Centre for twenty-four years. Prior to joining Homewood Health Centre in 1996, he was on faculty at Ontario Bible college: The Associate Pastor in Orillia: and he worked in the whole sale, retail marketing sector.

Rev Kalap graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Theology from Ontario Bible College in Toronto in 1982: a master’s degree in Theological Studies (counseling major) from Ontario Theological Seminary 1984. He is a member of the Canadian Association of Spiritual Care (CASC) .He is a Certified Pastoral Counsellor (CPC) with the Evangelical Order of Pastoral Counsellor of America. He is a Registered Psychotherapist with the College of Psychotherapist of Ontario. He is one of the founding members of MWHB.

He has been a guest speaker at several schools, churches, community organizations and hospitals. He has received awards of Excellence at the Homewood Health for Customer Service (2005): and the CEO Award (2011).

His greatest achievement, together with his incredible wife Dawna of 30 years, is being parents to their four wonderful children.

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