Chichi’s earliest memory of her mother’s illness is a haunting incident that happened when she was about seven years old. A neighbor’s chicken had run into their kitchen, and her mother chased it all around the house until she caught it by it wings. She tied it up and beat it with a broom; Chichi watched her mother in shock until the chicken died. She remembered asking her mother why she beat the chicken, and she can never forget the fear she saw in her mother’s teary eyes as she responded in a whisper, “it is a witch; they sent it to kill me, but I got it before it got me”.
Some years after the chicken incident, her mother lost her job as a teacher in a local primary school because of her mental instability, her father abandoned them and moved in with his mistress, neighbors publicly accused her mother of being demon possessed and later called her mother’s relative from the village to come and take her away for treatment.
The day they took her mother to the village and sent Chichi to her father and his new wife, her uncle called her aside and said to her “Don’t ever tell people that your mother is mad; they will feel more sympathy for you if you say she is dead than if you say she is mad”.
Chichi’s experience is not unusual, in fact many relatives of mentally sick persons in Africa can identify in one way or more with her confusion and fear about her mother’s illness. The prejudice and ignorance that hovers around mental illnesses have broken even the strongest family bond and made the most caring person frustrated. Marriages have ended, children have given up on parents, and many families have abandoned their sick ones to roam the streets without medical care, some even keep them locked up in basements away from the snooping eyes of people, all because they are afraid of being stigmatized.
Living a life with a constant interruption by mental illness is hard, as if that is not enough, many mentally ill persons also have to deal with being abandoned and treated as less than human by their loved ones and the society. Little wonder that it has been historically difficult to diagnose and treat mental health problems in Africa. Lack of support and the stigma of mental illnesses are some of the reasons that prevent many patients from getting the medical help they desperately need. For some who eventually get diagnosed and treated it still remains a challenge for them to get back to normal life because of the rejections and exclusions they face from the society.
Mental illness defined by the American Heritage Medical Dictionary as “any various psychiatric conditions, usually characterized by impairment of an individual’s normal cognitive, emotional , or behavioral functioning, and caused by physiological or psychosocial factors’’, is one of the most misunderstood sicknesses in Africa; cultural beliefs have distorted people’s perception of the sickness by suggesting that mental illness is as a result of demon possession or spiritual attack by some unknown powerful enemies.
Sometimes it is also seen as a weakness on the part of the one affected instead of seeing it as a psychological disorder that needs medical attention just like any other ailment. The media is also filled with stereotypes; mentally ill people are often portrayed as violent and aggressive murderers, who are dangerous to people around them. Insensitive words like psycho, crazy, mad, nuts have been used to describe a mentally ill person by the media.
It is appalling to know that despite the increasing progress in the treatment of mental disorders, there is still no encouraging evidence to show that the stigma, myths and ignorance surrounding mental illness is changing significantly. Even more discouraging is that while the negative attitude persists; cases of mental illness among African women have not declined. According to the World Health Organization, the multiple roles women play in society place them at greater risk of experiencing mental-health problems than others in the community.
More studies have also shown that “women more than men are likely to be adversely affected by specific mental disorders, such as anxiety-related disorders and depression, due to the effects of domestic and sexual violence, and escalating stress level ”.
A significant number of women in war torn areas and countries recovering from war have also been said to be suffering from many mental-health problems according to a study conducted by International Medical Corps (IMC). It has become a major health concern in some African countries such as Liberia, Sudan, Rwanda and many others that have been through conflicts and wars recently. With this alarming increase it is very important that the attitude to mental illness starts changing.
One sure way of ensuring that is to start battling the prejudice with increased knowledge. Asking the what, why, how, and when questions about mental illness will help both the patient and the society to discard the myths of cultural beliefs, and change public attitudes from fear, and rejection, to acceptance, and support.
These myths need to be discredited so that those who experience mental illness can come out of their hiding places and go for medical help that will help them live healthier lives. The support of family, friends is also critical like Dr Deb a psychologist specializing in trauma and depression has shown with her determination to change the prejudice about mental illness one person at a time, , she says ‘’there are many ordinary moments that allow me to correct ill-formed views. I find them at the bus stop, the supermarket, on the bank teller’s line, at social gatherings, and even in professional conferences. Whenever I hear misinformation about mental illness, hear a joke or a derogatory remark, with tact and sensitivity I correct the situation.
These teachable moments make me feel that my voice, though singular, can raise awareness. I don’t hide in shame or recoil about my circumstances. Instead, I am confident and brim with information to help others realize what is so wrongly represented in our world about mental illness’’.
Photo credit: Think Stock Photos
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