The issue of mental health has taken a back seat for decades in the Virgin Islands (VI), but recent concerns raised by local residents during the political campaign season brought it to the forefront. Several candidates on St. Croix used their campaigns to focus on mental health, and two of them, Senator-elect Alicia Barnes and Senator-elect Allison Degazon, were the top vote getters in the November 6 election. This is good news for the local chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) who have been working to make mental illness a priority.
“I feel grateful that more individuals are recognizing the importance of caring for our mentally ill population,” said Sherilyn Pogson, president of the St. Croix NAMI Chapter.
According to Pogson,mental health has not been a priority for the Virgin Islands government for some time. “The years of continuous budget cuts, decrease in mental health services, lack of succession planning for staff in the VI Division of Mental Health to ensure the continuity of services for their clients, in addition to the closing of the psychiatric unit in the Governor Juan F. Luis Hospital on St. Croix for several years from my viewpoint, shows that the government has not made mental health care a priority for Virgin Islanders,” continued Pogson.
Kathleen O’Garro works at Island Therapy Solutions (ITS) on St. Croix as a psychometrist. According to the National Association of Psychometrists, they are responsible for the administration and scoring of psychological and neuropsychological tests under the supervision of a clinical psychologist or clinical neuropsychologist. O’Garro agrees that mental health in the Territory needs more attention. “One of the greatest needs is an inpatient facility. At present residents of the Virgin Islands with mental illness who require stabilization are sent off island,” said O’Garro. “This facility would also serve the needs of individuals who are in need of medication management, who are experiencing psychosis or are a danger to themselves or others,” added O’Garro. Island Therapy Solutions provides a variety of services across the Territory. According to O’Garro, those services include Mental Health therapy, Psychiatry, Neuropsychological evaluations, couples therapy and Occupational and Speech therapy.
Newcomers to the Virgin Islands Senate, Senators-elect Barnes and Degazon, on their respective websites, have both vowed to address the challenges of mental health in the V.I. Territory. Incumbent Senator Novelle Francis, Jr. who won his bid for re-election, recently offered legislation to provide funding to develop a mental health facility on St. Croix. Building on this momentum, organizers from NAMI St. Croix plan to be more vocal about the needs of the mental health community and their caregivers.
“NAMI plans to advance our mission by focusing on the launch of our advocacy campaign within our community and also with our V.I. Legislature to ensure that whatever funding and/or legislation is needed for services, will be provided,” said Pogson.
According to Pogson, NAMI St. Croix has begun to collaborate with members of the V.I. Territory to develop a comprehensive advocacy campaign that will focus on educating the general public on mental health. The campaign will also focus on to helping the community better understand the illness, the stigma surrounding mental health, and the need for support services not only for individuals diagnosed with a mental illness but also for their family caregivers who help to support them through their illness.
The need for a comprehensive mental health system is rapidly increasing. Last year, the V.I. Territory experienced two category five hurricanes in the space of two weeks. O’Garro who works primarily with students, said those effects have been far reaching, with individuals experiencing generalized anxiety, extreme stress and depression. “The mobilization of mental health professionals in a variety of locations to include schools could be one way to provides services to those in need,” said O’Garro. “After the hurricanes, Island Therapy received grants to provide crisis counseling in communities as well as free mental health counseling which is still ongoing at ITS,” concluded O’Garro.
Pogson was excited when she first heard about the free mental health counselling, and shared it with the caregivers in the Family to Family course she teaches. For several years, NAMI St. Croix has provided support for families living with loved ones who suffer with mental illness. Pogson herself, has a loved one diagnosed with mental illness, and she said she became a part of NAMI to find help and information on how to deal with her relative. There are several things she would like to see implemented as part of the local mental health care system.
“The things I would like to see addressed the most with the VI mental health care system are a case management system that will be able to help monitor the overall care and needs of individuals, an increase in vocational rehabilitation services and appropriate and safe housing opportunities to encourage independent living for individuals,” concluded Pogson.
An upcoming project of the group includes the development of a local mental health resource guide to be shared with the general public, as well as the launch of NAMI St. Croix’s website.