Head of the Social Work Training and Research Centre at the UWI Open Campus, Cerita Buchanan.
Photo: Adrian Walker

Head of the Social Work Training and Research Centre (SWTRC), University of the West Indies (UWI) Open Campus, Cerita Buchanan, is proud to see her vision for mental health brought to life through the Mental Health First Responders Programme.

A pilot of the programme was recently concluded, in which 26 first responders from three St. Andrew communities were trained as Mental Health First Responders.

The project is being expanded to focus on institutions and will include categories of persons such as human resource personnel, police officers and correctional officers.

Miss Buchanan tells JIS News that mental health has been near and dear to her ever since working at the University Hospital of the West Indies as a medical social worker.

“I was assigned to Ward 21, which is the mental health ward, and my own experience as a young clinician, working with the mentally ill, caused me to think about how society stigmatises persons with mental health,” she says.

The SWTRC Head explains that what she experienced on the ward, which had mental health patients from all walks of life, including students and doctors, made her think that the general populace did not understand that everyone is susceptible.

“We stigmatise persons as being mentally ill or we call them ‘mad’ and we don’t realise the implications,” Miss Buchanan says.

“I was interested in mental health, not just from the illness perspective but how it impacts families. I worked a lot with families and communities when persons were to return home from the ward. That passion was what I took with me to the centre,” she adds.

Her work at the Centre, she says, is fuelled by that passion as well as the understanding that social work is key in mental health.

Acknowledging that the Ministry of Health and Wellness is doing a large amount of work in this regard, the decision was made to support the work of the Ministry.

“I really love that thrust that we have now for mental health. I think there is a role for the University in this aspect where we can get communities, police officers and others involved through proper training,” she says.

The SWTRC Head explains that one important aspect of the programme is knowing who to call or refer a situation to when someone is experiencing mental health issues.

This, she points out, is different from having a mental illness.

“I realised that many persons were unaware, so I decided that this was something that we really needed to take on,” she explains.

Miss Buchanan acknowledges that the input of the SWTRC is “just the tip of the iceberg,” in terms of the amount of work that is required.

The team will be approaching Corporate Jamaica with the programme and she expresses confidence that some of them will come on board.

Miss Buchanan informs JIS News that a number of organisations, having heard about the programme, have already approached the SWTRC to have their Human Resource professionals trained.

She reiterates that being a Mental Health First Responder is not necessarily about treating psychosis, but in the event that a staff member comes into office with an issue, the HR professional will know how to respond.

Miss Buchanan gives the example of someone experiencing bereavement or just dealing with a difficult matter, indicating that even just the way you interact with the person and speak with empathy and compassion to that member of staff will make a difference.

“Those are the types of things that we need to ensure that is done. We have to understand that we all are on the spectrum in terms of mental health. This is where I am hoping that the programme will take us, not just in Jamaica but in the region,” she says.

The SWTRC Head says that the nomenclature of the course has been reconsidered as it may give a false impression of what it is really about.

“The course is Community Mental Health First Responders and sometimes persons hear community and will think geographic communities, so what we’ve decided, in terms of our evaluation, is to drop the ‘community’. It is now Mental Health First Responders course,” she explains.

“We may be training persons in the geographic community or persons in organisations, because the content itself is not specific to persons who are working in a particular community,” she adds.

Miss Buchanan says the training will help participants to have an understanding of being a first responder, knowing what to say to not trigger something in the person that is being attended to, knowing who to call, knowing what to do, and what kind of support can be offered in the initial stage.

According to her, it is like first aid, and she points out that internationally it is called Mental Health First Aid.

“It is a first response, so whether you are in organisations, corporate entities or government agencies, this would be a good programme for someone who realises that they really don’t know how to connect with people who may be just feeling down,” Miss Buchanan explains.

“We may have mental health days when we are not coping. The programme covers all areas. We will be able to do things for different communities,” she says.

Miss Buchanan notes that the SWTRC is a very old centre at the University of the West Indies.

“What we have been doing is actual Social Work paraprofessional training since 1962 and we have been doing it for the Caribbean region and so we are now looking at other areas within social work,” she says.

The Centre, which evaluates the National Youth Service (NYS) and Career Advancement Programme (CAP), has done research and training in youth work.

“We ensure that we have the research to back it up, so we did some research to find out what existed for mental health and then we decided to do the training based on filling gaps. That’s part of what we do,” she explains.

Major Pauline King, who is a first responder working on behalf of the Salvation Army, says she was pleased to participate in the Mental Health First Responders course as well as the workshops that preceded the course.

Community Worker and Mental Health First Responder, Major Pauline King of the Salvation Army.


The workshops were held in Jones Town, Allman Town and August Town. Major King, who is based in the Allman Town area, says she found the workshops to be very interesting and interactive.

“It allowed us the opportunity to see what was actually happening in our communities in terms of mental health,” she says.

Major King adds that the training will make a big difference in the communities that have benefited so far, especially the one to which she has been assigned by the Salvation Army.

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