–but objects to motion for being ‘too politicised’
By Derwayne Wills
WHAT started as a parliamentary motion expressing concern for Guyana’s alarming suicide rate, quickly descended into a politicised debate marked by blame-throwing. This was the observation made by parliamentarians from both sides of the National Assembly yesterday, in the face of a motion raised by opposition People’s Progressive Party (PPP) Parliamentarian, Dr Vindhya Persaud.
While both sides agreed that suicide should not be given a political face, representatives of both sides managed to do just that.
Persaud’s presentation, while introducing her motion, infuriated government MPs when she descended into rhetoric on the current parking-meter controversy, as well as the national state of rice and sugar being linked to suicides, which sparked derisive laughter from the government side. Persaud’s motion cited some 1500 to 2000 suicides each year in Guyana, and called for the government to implement the 2014 Mental Health Strategic Plan, and the 2015-2020 National Suicide Prevention Plan, both crafted by the former PPP administration.
The speakers’ list for this motion was well padded, with a total of eight or so presenters from both sides of the House.
Persaud called for the decriminalisation of suicide in Guyana, a position that resonated with both Public Security Minister Khemraj Ramjattan, and Minister within the Ministry of Public Health, Dr Karen Cummings.
Persaud said suicide should be labelled a national priority, with adequate resources and physical infrastructure designated for fighting the scourge that continues to plague the nation.
She noted the need for increased training of health workers, both in the public and private sector to “recognise, diagnose, and refer” persons affected by mental health problems.
Further pleas were made for poison-management centres, as a World Health Organisation (WHO) report did make reference to easy access to poisonous, farm-related products as leading to the high suicide rate.
Persaud, a representative of the Guyana Hindu Dharmic Sabha, has long maintained her stance that alcohol has a “disruptive impact on families and wider society.”
She also called for the media to play a more meaningful role in reducing ‘copycat suicides’ which happen as a result of suicides being detailed in the media, allowing for other persons to adopt similar methodologies.
Dr Persaud’s speech came before a one-hour recess in the National Assembly at 16:00hrs.
When the recess concluded, Social Protection Minister Volda Lawrence was the first to call the PPP MP out for her reference to parking meters.
At the time of Lawrence’s speech, Persaud had not yet returned from recess, which prompted Natural Resources Minister Raphael Trotman to rise on the point that the mover of the suicide motion was not present while counter-arguments were being made.
At this, Opposition Chief Whip, Gail Teixeira, exited the Parliament Chamber briefly, only to return with Dr Persaud in tow.
Lawrence challenged Persaud’s claim that the David Granger administration had not been doing enough on the suicide issue.
She called for Persaud to produce evidence indicating that suicides were linked to a number of persons being fired from the public sector within the last nine months.
Lawrence went as far as to cite the work of the Men Affairs Bureau under her ministry, which focuses on the likelihood of men committing suicide, since, according to her, these are higher than suicides among women.
As a counter to Persaud’s claim on unemployment, Lawrence cited the review of the Board of Industrial Training (BIT) programme, for which the age of entry for skills training was increased to 30 years, as “providing training in areas for these people to be readily employed.”
Lawrence said, too, that night shelters were given increased maintenance, so that vulnerable persons could have a space in their time of need. “Government is taking action,” Lawrence declared, as she called for an ongoing process on suicide, which sees collaboration across society.
The Social Protection Minister ended by saying she cannot support the Bill in its current form, a position shared by Public Minister Khemraj Ramjattan, who was the government’s final speaker on Persaud’s motion.
Also opposing the motion in its current form were Ministers within the Ministries of Health, and Education, Dr Karen Cummings, and Nicolette Henry, respectively.
Ramjattan accused the PPP of attempting to “steal the work of the [coalition] government.”
This position was bolstered by the minister’s previous heckling that in 23 years, the strategies now being proposed by the PPP, which was ousted from power in 2015, seemed to have not been implemented.
The Public Security Minister said Persaud’s motion sought to “make the issue a political football.”
“We started from nothing; we have moved to something. And that something is now being criticised by those who left us with nothing,” Ramjattan said in defence of what he saw as the government’s proactive policy. His statement was met with rousing laughter from the government side.
“I do not support some aspects of the motion, especially as it relates to the statistics, but the decriminalization [of suicide], I support that,” Ramjattan said, ending his presentation with a call for greater collaboration to “break this scourge that is plaguing our society.”
Persaud, who was expected to close off the debate on her motion, defended her work, saying that the intention was not to create a political issue out of suicide, but instead to ask for priority to be given to areas more affected by suicide, among them Regions Six (East Berbice-Corentyne), and Two (Pomeroon-Supenaam).
Government’s final vote saw Persaud’s motion being struck down for politicisation.