the heart of community mental health

27/08/2020 – John-Earle Spence is the Lead Psychologist on the Fight for Peace coordinated UP Unity & Peace programme in Kingston, Jamaica. Here he describes how COVID-19 has affected his work with young people, and that of his team. Established in 2015, UP Unity & Peace brings together multiple services and actors to support young people to reach their full potential, operating across six communities in the Jamaican capital. This blog was originally compiled and published by UNICEF Jamaica, a supporter of Fight for Peace and the UP Unity and Peace programme.

“COVID-19 has challenged us at Fight for Peace to stay in touch with all the children and youth we had been giving face-to-face support. For people who live in the downtown Kingston communities where our Psycho-social Support Team works, one of the biggest challenges is access to services. Their mental health is no different, and a time like this can leave people feeling even more alone.

Jamaicans are very expressive people, and so we just have to give them a safe place where they can express their inner thoughts and feelings. Kids or youth participants on our UP Unity & Peace programme who might have been a little bit shy in speaking face-to-face before – doing sessions remotely has actually got them in a more talkative mode.

Remote sessions might be best for some in terms of their willingness to open up – even if it’s just a WhatsApp conversation. I was on the phone with a young lady and she said, ‘Sir, I want to tell you something, but I can’t tell you, can I WhatsApp you?’ and I said, ‘You know what I’m good with that’ and for the next two times we had sessions it was just WhatsApp back and forth, whether it was a text message or a voice note.

I think that distance allowed her to be more vulnerable, a little bit more truthful, a little bit more open – as it goes for some others who have responded well to this, and we might want to continue that way because that’s how it’s working best for them.

We’ve ended up reaching entire families with psychosocial support, which might not have happened before the pandemic. When the person who owns the phone is the parent, naturally it is them who picks up the phone, and very often we end up counselling them too. These are people who might never have been able to access counselling, or to think it was an option for them.

These conversations also enable us to understand what other struggles a family might be having, particularly food insecurity. Where possible, and besides helping them access government services, we provide immediate assistance and refer them to long term support. In our last round of food package delivery, we added families that the psych team had identified who may not otherwise have met the criteria for vulnerability we had established.”

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