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Feb 21, 2023

Bridging the Gaps of Mental Illness Treatment in Belize

A study done by the Pan American Health Organization in 2013 found that thirteen percent of adults in Belize suffer from some form of mental illness. According to PAHO, the most common disorders include schizophrenia, depression, substance abuse, psychotic disorder, anxiety and problems linked to stress. That very same study found that due to professional training provided by the Government of Belize, between 2001 and 2007, mental health consultations increased by more than four hundred percent. Rehabilitation centres are also established at the community level to provide care. Notwithstanding these efforts, those five years have provided enough evidence to suggest that there is much more work to be done in Belize where treating with mental illness is concerned. News Five’s Paul Lopez.


Paul Lopez, Reporting

Violent incidents, crimes and deaths linked to mental health issues have become all too common in Belize. Over the years, we have reported on a number of these instances, from house fires, to murders, and bomb threats. Fairly recently, a police officer shot and killed a knife-wielding Belize City resident, who suffered from mental illness. There are also reports of  mentally ill persons dying in police custody. On February sixteenth, 2023, Barkley Allen, a twenty-six-year-old resident of Orange Walk Town, was accused of burning down his grandmother’s home. Allen lives with mental illness.


Karen Banner

Karen Banner, Neighbor of Fire Victim (File: Feb 16, 2023)

“Barklay is like my son and he’s been having mental issues I would say about five years. It could be a little less but around that – and he would do good. For like three, six months you would see him hustling, doing ih lee construction work, buying his food, taking care of himself and sudden one he would just go down again, so this has been a constant battle and it is sad because his grandmother has been trying.”


And only two weeks prior, a Balan Street resident informed us that the fire which destroyed his home was started by his son, who is also living with mental illness.


Arturo Augustine

Arturo Augustine, Home Owner (File: February 08, 2023)

“This man do some ridiculous things weh I nuh know. The other day da back deh ih mi di ketch first. I nuh know, like ih just mess with fire. First da mi over ya soh that’s why yoh see I bar that thing deh cause the man di look fi ketch the whole bathroom back deh so fire.”


One would argue that information is not readily available to the Belizean public on how an individual should respond in the event someone becomes a threat to others or themselves. Take the case of Nicole Polonio in San Pedro. When she began to display psychotic episodes at home, her family allegedly bound her with chains inside a bedroom. Polonio eventually died from positional asphyxia.


Nicole Polonio

Voice of: Ashley Sanders, Niece of Deceased (File: Feb 3, 2023)

“When I walked in, it was just her feet chained to the bed with padlock and then her hands were chained up, up. And she just mi di scream, she mi even hoarse; her lips mi look white, she just mi look malnourish, I mi just literally look like a movie scene, like a kidnapping. They said she was a threat to herself and others around her. I just broke down and I cry and dehn just watch me ina di next room and tell me I just don’t understand.”


And, without proper training on how to handle someone experiencing a mental breakdown; a police officer can quickly resort to violence. A standoff between police officers and a knife-wielding Francis Ramos on the Belize City Swing Bridge ended fatal back in November 2023.


Kareem Musa

Kareem Musa, Minister of Home Affairs (File: Nov 23, 2022)

“Very difficult circumstances, no doubt, I think you can assess from all the footage that has been provided so far that there was a standoff with several police officers.  Mr. Ramos was in fact armed with a large knife and there were several attempts that were made to kind of calm down Mr. Ramos and I think one of the officers even fire three warning shots at the feet of Mr. Ramos. I think it certainly brings into sharp focus a very deep issue that we have with mental patients, especially in Belize City.  There is a need, I think we all recognize that there is a need for a facility where we can have these individuals go and to receive the necessary treatment and attention.”


Two years prior, in June 2019, Nestor Vasquez Junior was killed by another mentally ill individual inside a holding cell. His alleged killer, Collin Francis, was detained for attacking his psychiatric nurse Augustina Elijio.  Vasquez who was at the time also displaying acute episodes of mental illness, was placed inside the same cell as Elijio.


Jules Vasquez

Jules Vasquez, Brother of Deceased (File: Jun 10, 2019)

“He was mercilessly beaten in that cell.  A very large swath of blood.  They then bungled, serial errors, they moved with no urgency towards the cell where they had been notified that, just voices in the cell, “Fight! Fight!”  That kind of thing.  They responded with complete, in a blasé manner, just lasing into the thing like “wow, weh di go on.”  No urgency to save a dying man‘s life. The police, the officers on duty who have been named and on interdiction, under criminal and disciplinary investigation, they failed so thoroughly in their duty of care.  They put my brother who they knew, because I had spoken to the duty officer, was having an acute episode that week that he was mentally ill, they put him in a cell with a man who had just displayed a psychotic binge on Nurse Elijio.  They put him in there to be killed and he’s dead.”


Both those incidents underscored the fact that there is a need for greater education and public awareness of mental health issues across the country. The Ministry of Health and Wellness has been providing training for police officers to deal with mental health crises. Last week, forty officers underwent rigorous training.


Melissa Diaz-Musa

Dr. Melissa Diaz-Musa, Director of Health Services (File: Feb 14, 2023)

“A mental health police manual was done, I think, in 2007; it was revised in 2014 and we have been doing training. It forms a part of the training, but it I, I would say, the first time since the pandemic, and since we’ve been trying to strengthen this aspect of the mental health issues in Belize. Today we have forty police officers who are undergoing a two-day training not only to discuss managing mental health crisis, but also we are trying to ensure that we also know how to care for our mental health.”


There is also a great need for critical care and emergency care facilities. Typically in Belize, acute mental illnesses are neither diagnosed nor given critical care. The Western Regional Hospital offers its patients acute psychiatric treatment. The hospital’s Acute Psychiatric Unit is one of few across the country that provide professional help  to patients. Anne Link is a psychiatric nurse practitioner inside the unit. She gave us some insight into the services they provide.


Anne Link

Anne Link, Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner, APU (File: Jun 27, 2022)

“As a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner we have outreach programs that we involve in, which those individuals that are not able to come to the hospital to get help, we try and reach out to them in the different areas of the country, including Valley of Peace, we have also other districts where they do the same thing. We don’t like to necessarily label psychiatric patients. We have individuals that are having difficulty in managing their daily living. So, in this case we just try and reach out to individual with mental health disorders, rather than just patients in general with psychiatric issues.”


Reporting for News Five I am Paul Lopez

Viewers please note: This Internet newscast is a verbatim transcript of our evening television newscast. Where speakers use Kriol, we attempt to faithfully reproduce the quotes using a standard spelling system.

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