Suicide is illegal in Tanzania, where there is roughly one psychiatrist for every two million people — and that needs to change, a group of psychiatrists and residents from the University of Calgary says.

"Unfortunately, people suffering from mental illness are often isolated, detained, shackled," Calgary psychiatrist Dr. Rachel Grimminck told The Homestretch Tuesday.

"There is tremendous stigma and so very few people receive treatment or have any access to any psychiatrist care."

Grimminck and Dr. Roy Turner, who practices at Rockyview General Hospital, are two of the doctors who worked with interns on a two-week program to train medical students in the East African country.

"To be honest, the vast majority of people suffering from mental illness don't get any care at all," she said.

Grimminck says the country has about 30 psychiatrists for 58 million people, compared to 4,700 for 35 million Canadians.

'Not brought up that way'

Turner says there are a lot of cultural differences that became challenges, despite months of preparation before leaving Canada.

"One the great barriers was how hard it was to get the students to communicate to us. They are not brought up that way. There is an etiquette system and sometimes they are scorned and embarrassed when they do speak up," he said.

"We found creative ways, like a question box, a suggestion box, had focus group meetings to see if we could get through some of the barriers."

But change, he adds, is possible.

"We'd had comments in one of our focus groups from one of the young students saying that 'we brought a light, we shone a light,' and I just love that metaphor," Turner said.

"She talked about changing her attitude, catching some of the passion that we bring and understanding that these are medically illnesses, they have treatment. She will change, she wants her country to change. Suicide being illegal has to change."

'Change is possible'

Grimminck agrees.

"Part of our collaboration with the university in Tanzania has been to train psychiatrists and in the future we are hoping to create a residency program in Mwanza in order to train more psychiatrists," she said.

But that change has to be collaborative, Turner cautions.

"It has sparked a belief and hope in people, that change is possible. With energy, effort and teamwork and that kind of dedication, that we can get out there and change the message and help the next generation make some change themselves."


With files from The Homestretch