Mental health is yet to be a prominent conversation in African communities. In the African culture, there are various perspectives on mental health and mental health conditions that are a hindrance to those affected. Some believe mental illnesses to be the “devil’s attack,” or “witchcraft.” While others claim mental illnesses to be just madness. Mental health is also often associated with western culture, making it hard for African communities to grasp the gravity of the issue.
The reality is, the issue of mental health conditions resides on the continent. For instance, I – Kabasinga was diagnosed with depression and anxiety during my freshman year of university. I suffered a loss months before joining university and slowly and progressively lost interest in various activities while founding it harder to be around people. Inexplicably, I felt alone and hopeless. Before receiving medication, I tried to talk to my family about what was going on but was met with the usual ‘get out of your head’ responses. For a while, I also believed there was more I could have been doing rather than just feeling the way I was because I had been raised under the same cultural beliefs as my family.
Similarly, I – Takudzwanashe’s mental health issues was dismissed when I tried to share the burden I was carrying. I recall one of my childhood friends asking me if l had ever been depressed. When I shared my experience with him, he found it to be funny. If l had shared my experience about having a tummy ache or a terrible headache, he would have sympathized with me. Unfortunately, it is a different and painful story when mental health is involved.
Mental health conditions have a lot of negative effects and their main drivers include abusive relationships, death of a loved one and culture shock. Sometimes people with mental health conditions end up committing suicide because they feel like they do not fit in their societies anymore. This is because family and friends make fun of people with mental health conditions, rather than being supportive. Some people can joke around saying “kurumidza kubika sadza wedepression asati azvisungirira (hurry up and prepare supper before our depressed friend commits suicide)”. Our words and actions can kill someone slowly without us being aware, which is why it is important to be conscious of our words and actions.
Stigma and discrimination are like a cancer in our societies because some family members choose to distance themselves from people who might be bipolar or schizophrenic. The family members end up not visiting or involving them in family matters. If they were suffering from a chronic disease, would the family distance themselves or would they encourage them to cut down on sugar or salt? Why can’t the same support be offered to someone with a mental health condition?
Children are sometimes brought up in broken homes, simply because the other parent chose to break up with their partner after they realised that their partner had a long term condition. Some people in our African societies believe that mental health conditions are a result of punishment from the ancestors. In some cases, suffers are not willing to tell their friends or partners that they are taking medication for a condition. Unfortunately they can then end up having a relapse which may lead to institutionalisation.
We should normalise having conversations around mental health in our homes and encouraging both boys and girls to talk about their emotions and feelings. Expression of emotions and feelings does not make one weak but it proves that they are human. Let us all do our part in raising awareness of mental health issues and this will have a positive effect on our society. One way in which we can do that is through the use of performing arts, advertisements and posters. Its about time that there was a change, just because the myths and misconceptions around mental health have caused enough chaos and confusion in many homes. Therapy and counselling sessions are helpful too, and instead of being against counselling and therapy, we Africans should encourage one another to look for someone to talk to rather than drinking the pain or anger away.
Mental health conditions are not easily seen by the human eye but there are a lot of people that suffer in silence. Sometimes all we need to do is offer an attentive ear, not being judgemental can make a difference in someone’s life.