During his Contribution on the Mental Health Bill (2022), Prime Minister and Minister of Finance the Hon. Philip Davis termed the debate a “landmark moment for the many Bahamians whose lives are impacted by mental illness, as well as the mental health professionals and advocates who have called for reforms for many years”.
“First tabled in July of this year, we have consulted and refined this draft to ensure that we are bringing the strongest possible Bill to the floor today,” Prime Minister Davis said, in the House of Assembly on November 16, 2022. “On behalf of the many Bahamians whose lives will be impacted, we wanted to ensure that we got it right.”
“I believe that we are delivering a Bill that effectively modernises the laws surrounding mental health, respects the rights of those facing mental health challenges, and puts in place a framework to expand the resources available to help those who need it,” he added.
Prime Minister Davis pointed out that the Mental Health Bill (2022) repealed and replaced the Mental Health Act of 1969.
“1969,” he exclaimed. “That is how long it has been since we’ve enacted such a comprehensive reform to the existing mental health legislation.”
“What we see before us represents hard work by policymakers and experts working together to get this done,” Prime Minister Davis added. “My administration has treated the passing of this legislation as a matter of urgency, because we know the difficulties people are facing throughout the nation.”
Prime Minister Davis noted that mental illness, mental disorders, anxiety, and depression were not necessarily topics discussed every day in The Bahamas. Yet, he said, no family went untouched by those issues.
“Many Bahamians have struggled under the weight of mental illness for years, often lacking access to counselling, medication, and treatment options due to lack of finances, lack of access to expertise, or simply a lack of awareness of where to turn,” he said.
“We need only look at the tragic suicides in recent memory to get an indication of the silent battles being fought all over the country.”
Prime Minister Davis pointed out that The Bahamas was not alone in that.
“The World Health Organization estimates that one in four people are living with mental illness; and that number is growing every year,” he said.
“Mental health has become a major focus of public health efforts around the world and The Bahamas is no exception,” he added. “The Bill we are debating today provides a modern, best practice-aligned framework, one which will usher us into a new era for mental health in The Bahamas.”
Prime Minister Davis noted that The Mental Health Bill (2022) was rightly viewed as a human rights bill.
“Its focus is to promote community treatment options and to facilitate voluntary admission to mental health facilities,” he said. “In this Bill, we also see provisions made to allow appointed representatives to assist those living with severe mental illnesses in making decisions about their treatment, as well as their personal and financial matters.
“The Bill before us also allows for the establishment of a Mental Health Services Board and a Mental Health Review Tribunal.”
He added that the objectives of the Bill included the following: preserving the human rights of those diagnosed with mental illnesses, ensuring they are aware of their rights and are protected from discrimination; ensuring that appropriate levels of mental health care and treatment options are available in our communities; empowering persons with mental illness to make decisions about their care and treatment, while providing safeguards to protect them and ensure they are treated fairly and humanely; and stablishing standards for mental health services, ensuring that there are benchmarks related to quality, safety, and appropriateness of treatments and facilities.
“This is where having effective teams working through the Mental Health Services Board and Mental Review Tribunal to establish and enforce standards will be critical,” Prime Minister Davis said.
“The duties of the Mental Health Service Board will include establishing general standards for mental health care and treatment, promoting best practices, setting standards for accreditation, inspecting mental health facilities, and advising and assisting the Minister of Health on matters relating to mental health in The Bahamas,” he pointed out.
Prime Minister Davis said that the board will be comprised of the Chief Medical Officer, a registered psychologist, a registered psychiatrist or medical professional with mental health training, the director or deputy director of Social Services, the Chairperson of the National Commission for Persons with Disabilities, the Chief Nursing Officer, a registered occupational therapist, a person who has accessed mental health services, a family member, next of kin, or caregiver of someone with mental illness, and two representative from civil society with at least 10 years of experience within the mental health field.
“As you can see, this board will include the necessary expertise, will strike a balance between the public, private, and non-profit sectors, and will ensure that diverse perspectives are at the table when decisions are being made and standards are being developed,” he stated.
Prime Minister Davis added that the Mental Health Review Tribunal will hear and review mental health matters.
“This includes decisions related to making and revoking care and treatment orders, hearing appeals, and hearing complaints regarding violations of rights, among other responsibilities,” he said.
“Like the Mental Health Services Board, the Tribunal will include a diverse range of experts and professionals, as well as those with experience related to mental health. The members will include a psychiatrist, a mental health professional with ten years’ experience, a counsel and attorney-at-law, a person who has experience in social services, as well as those who are advocates for those with mental illness,” Prime Minister Davis revealed.
Prime Minister Davis said that, as a “grandfather with a great deal of affection for all of our Bahamian children”, it was of great importance to him that the legislation protected and supported The Bahamas’ youngest citizens.
“This Bill will ensure that minors will have a clear idea of who represents their interests, and establishes standards for those who seek to act in the best interests of our children,” he said.
“We are building a better Bahamas for everyone,” he stated.
“That means people from every walk of life, and therefore must include those with severe mental illness,” Prime Minister Davis added. “We are all aware that many Bahamians who are homeless are sufferers of severe mental illness.”
Prime Minister Davis noted that, under the Mental Health Bill, 2022, persons appearing to have mental illness will be taken to the nearest healthcare or mental health facility, where they can receive the treatment they need.
“Imprisoning people will mental illness is not a solution,” he stated. “This law specifically addresses offences against persons diagnosed with or exhibiting symptoms of mental illness, ensuring that they are protected from abuse, mistreatment, and neglect while being cared for in medical and mental health facilities. Individuals found to have committed such offences will be fined, given up to a two-year prison sentences, or both.”
“Similar penalties will apply to those who improperly or unlawfully detain persons with mental illness,” Prime Minister Davis added.
“We are taking the protection of the rights of people living with mental illness very seriously.”
Prime Minister Davis noted that the change “has been a long time coming”.
“There are many who have worked tirelessly behind the scenes and advocated vigorously to make today a possibility,” he pointed out. “Much to the frustration of those living with mental illness and the mental health professionals who take care of them, mental illness is one of the most neglected areas of public health.
“However, things are changing.”
Prime Minister Davis stated that the Mental Health Bill (2022) was a testament to that change.
He said: “We talk about how resilient we are as a people, and we should take great pride in our strength. But resilience does not mean we never experience shadows or darkness, or that as a population we are immune to the ravages of mental illness – it means we overcome crisis and tragedy, through faith, family, community, and yes, through compassionate medical treatment.
Too many people have been suffering alone and in silence. We need a more open, more honest, and more compassionate national conversation about mental health. When someone has heart disease, or kidney disease, or eye disease, we do not deny them our compassion or attention.”
Prime Minister Davis stated that people who suffered from afflictions that affected the brain should be treated no differently.
“I want all Bahamians to know this: seeking medical attention for a mental health crisis – for yourself or for a loved one – is a sign of strength, not weakness,” he said. “If your sister or mother or uncle broke a leg, if you broke a leg — you would not hesitate to seek medical care. It should be no different for any number of treatable mental illnesses.”
Prime Minister Davis pointed out that, across the world, scientists were making important progress in mapping the brain, an extraordinarily complex organ, with the goal of better understanding the causes of mental illness.
He said: “We hope these efforts will lead to breakthrough treatments. But there are important tools we have now to manage mental illness, and we should not wait to use them, just as we should fight the fear and ignorance that prevent people from responding to a mental health crisis with empathy and care.”
“We still have so much progress to make in this area,” Prime Minister Davis added. “The legislation we debate today is an important step forward. I know we are building a foundation that will improve and save many lives.”
By ERIC ROSE/Bahamas Information Services