In African House holds, mental health is not a conversation we have over supper, in fact it’s not a conversation we have at all. It is the elephant that sits quietly in all the rooms we walk in and the spaces we occupy but we would rather ignore it. In certain communities Anxiety attacks are linked to evil spirits or demonic possession and in others the word “depression” is accompanied by a lot of negative baggage. Contrary to the attitude towards mental health problems on the continent statistics show sky rocketing cases of illnesses each year.
Over this year a lone I have woken up on occasions to an RIP hash tag on twitter following a suicide. I have personally witnessed cases of patients brought into accidents and emergencies secondary to attempted suicide. The attitude towards mental health both online and offline is worrying and perpetuates the culture of silence among those suffering. It is sad that the conversation on mental health sparks after such cases but we soon forget they ever occurred. Actually the ignorance of mental health care and problems on the continent is a major contributor to the stigma that surrounds mental health illnesses and so this mental health awareness month is all so timely.
1.Mental health is an African problem
In a certain conversation someone referred to someone that was depressed as “having white girl problems.” The idea that depression, anxiety, PTSD etc are exclusively white problems is the beginning of the issue . Unless we recognize that these are very African problems then we are less likely to be willing to deal with them. Denying the existence of mental health problems on the continent does not solve them but simply masks the problem.
2. Normalise Therapy
I have a friend that shared with me the reaction of many people he’d told he was attending therapy. Many may have been well-meaning but he couldn’t help but recognize the fear in their eyes. They were afraid of him. Afraid of what he could do to them and many were uncomfortable with discussing any details about why he was in therapy in the first place. He is just one of many. The Stigma around mental health is one of the greatest Barriers towards seeking help. People know they need help but they are not sure how to feel about those helping them and the community around them. This lack of emotional Support from loved ones makes people less likely to seek help. In Jesus and Jollof podcast episode on Therapy – Cardio for your mind Yvonne Orji and Luvvie Ajayi explore some of the perceptions many people on the continent carry on therapy you do well to listen in.
3. Transgenerational Trauma
Our parents and generations before us have gone through so many traumatic experiences which may in a way have influenced how they respond to life. These symptoms are eventually reinforced on the next generation. For example women that are sexually abused are more likely to be very vigilant and strict on their daughters and in trying to protect them pass on their trauma to them. Because Trauma can be passed on in form of values and ideology it is necessary that we deal with the problems of mental health and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder today to avoid the possible lasting inter generational consequences. Also children raised by parents who have gone through major trauma like war and violence require therapy and support to untangle from the trauma of their parents.
4. Drug Abuse
The Drug problem in Africa is a public secret. Even with the consequences of the abused drugs clearly documented people continue to abuse them. Drug abuse is both a consequence and a cause of mental health problems in Africa. Because of the limited awareness and mental health specialists and care centers many people resort to self medication. The problem with self medication is that not all mental health problems are clinical. On and off episodes of depression especially after a traumatic experience may be normal and don’t require any treatment. One may worry of Clinical depression only if the episodes are prolonged and associated with disinterest in activities that were once exciting and even then the drugs should be prescribed by a specialist since they have very serious side effects.
5. Poverty and Unemployment
According to a paper by the University of Cape Town poverty and unemployment were linked to depression on the continent. It is not news that poverty brings with it stress, unhealthy consumption habits and poor living conditions. Individuals are more likely to have mental health issues and less likely to seek health care because they cannot afford it. Because of the the inadequate funding and national budget allocation towards mental health, mental health services are often very expensive if available and most times they are not available at all.
6. Maternal Depression
When I was rotating in Obstetrics and Gynecology I had the opportunity to interact with many mothers. Many of them were stressed out by issues that ranged from the demands of the home, gender based violence, and others claimed their husbands wouldn’t let them use contraceptives well aware of the consequences and risks of Grand multiparity. In a society that normalises the abuse of women’s Human Rights and waters down their trauma mental health problems like depression and PTSD are bound to suffice. Even worse still most of these Women are unable to get help because suffering is normalised in the notion that women are supposed to be “strong.”
7. Toxic Masculinity
Statistics show that men are more likely to suffer from mental health related problems and yet most of them are reluctant to receive help. In Africa this is mostly fueled by a culture that confines masculinity within narrow boarders and produces men with fragile egos. Men are taught that being a man is synonymous with not asking for help and they grow up to view it as a sign of weakness. Men are told to be hard, to not cry, to always have it together and generally always pretend to be fine. The problem with such a culture is that most men do not fully process the trauma they experience growing up and this trauma can manifest as violence aggression, low self esteem etc. If we are to fight stigma against mental health problems in Africa we therefore cannot over look such a culture.
All in all the conversation on mental health on the continent is long overdue and necessary if every individual is to achieve their full productivity potential. It is important that governments revise their funding for mental health related issues and awareness.
Throughout this month of May, we will be having conversations on here on the topic. Feel free to join by sharing this post and leaving a thought on the topic.
images were sourced from Pinterest
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