Guyana: mental illness, witchcraft and the highest suicide rate in the world

My name is Savitri Persaud, and I am a fourth-year PhD candidate in the Graduate Department of Social and Political Thought. My SSHRC-funded research analyzes Caribbean narratives and interpretations of mental health, disablement, and violence – particularly the ways in which associations are made between “madness”, religion, and demonic/spirit possession in Guyana. Mental health is not a funding priority in Guyana. Most Guyanese live in small villages and towns, and so when they experience mental distress, religious leaders of varying faiths are utilized as first responders. The long-standing belief of “beating out spirits and jumbies [demons]” is also prevalent in Guyanese society, and some people who were diagnosed with psychiatric disabilities have been killed through this kind of violent intervention. My research seeks to understand these multifaceted psycho-spiritual discourses and how this violence is made possible in a post-colonial context. This project is also generously funded through the Grace and David Taylor Graduate Scholarship in Caribbean Studies, Osgoode Hall Law School’s Nathanson Graduate Fellowship, and previously through multiple Ontario Graduate Scholarships.

photo of Savitri Persaud

Savitri Persaud

In 2014, I travelled to Guyana on two research trips and spent four months there doing fieldwork and working in collaboration with the University of Guyana and The Guyana Foundation – a local grassroots NGO that has made mental health awareness and initiatives an integral aspect of their mandate, especially given Guyana’s high suicide rate (ranked the highest the world in 2012 by the WHO at 44.2 per 100,000). The Guyana Foundation was instrumental in sharing my research with their media contacts and networks locally and internationally, which is how the Guardian interview came about.

During my fieldwork in Guyana, I interviewed medical professionals (nurses, psychiatrists, general practitioners), social service professionals, government officials, religious leaders, and NGO and civil society actors in order to understand how mental health and “madness” were talked about, engaging with diverse discourses and associated medical and spiritual practices. Additionally, I spent a week in New Amsterdam, Berbice conducting interviews and observations with medical staff at the National Psychiatric Hospital, colloquially known as the Berbice “Madhouse”. The Guyanese that I met and interviewed were most generous and hospitable in sharing their stories and experiences with me, and for this I am forever grateful.

I was born in Guyana and immigrated to Canada when I was five. I return often, and in addition to Toronto, Guyana will always be my home – I am a diasporic Guyanese-Canadian. This research was inspired after I spent time in Guyana as an undergraduate student volunteering with the women’s group Red Thread in 2009. At Red Thread I worked in support of the Coalition to Stamp Out Sexual Violence, and it was through this initiative that I started to take note of the violence faced by Guyanese women with psychiatric disabilities. Since then I’ve worked to understand how Guyanese talk about mental health, “madness”, and violence, with the hope of changing the discourse to prevent future violent incidents of this kind. I am also committed to ensuring that this research is grounded in understanding and interrogating how Guyanese talk about mental health and “madness” on their own terms and in their specific context. My work must be simultaneously intelligible to an audience in the West, and even more so accountable and legible to Guyanese. My supervisor/mentor Dr. Kamala Kempadoo and mentor Dr. D. Alissa Trotz taught me the importance of rigorous accountability; and of the significance of making forward and backward linkages and connections to these places that I call home.