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Exploring the ‘unAfricanness’ of depression and anxiety

An opinion piece by Grace Mashingaidze - Harare, Zimbabwe

About seven years ago, I experienced a seismic shift in my life that ultimately left me feeling very adrift. Having spent most of my life battling with high self-doubt and low self-esteem, I questioned who I was and lost belief in my value more than ever before. My mental and emotional unrest manifested itself physically and I lost a lot of weight.  A wise aunt suggested…no urged me to try out counseling. I eventually did go once just to say that I went but being stoic (not always a good trait) and feeling somewhat ashamed of my (perceived) weakness made me decide that unraveling my complex yarn of feelings was not going to be my thing.

The number of young Africans who face off against the joy-thieves named depression and anxiety silently is just way too many. According to a study conducted by Australia’s University of Queensland, Africa and the Middle East are the regions with the highest rates of depression in the world. Suicide rates in Zimbabwe become more and more alarming with each passing year. In fact, Zimbabwe ranks number 19 in the world when it comes to the rates of suicidal deaths. I was in university when I heard that three students committed students within a three-month period. In spite of these very telling statistics, there are continental-wide perceptions that make light of mental health issues. Depression and anxiety are Western “problems” that we have somehow imported. You are allowing yourself to be depressed and all you have to is to make a decision to not be depressed. The general belief here is that that mental health issues, particularly of the more silent kind, such as depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder are simply not African.

The truth is that all debates on whether these issues are African are all merely speculation and we may never really know for sure because pre-colonial Africa didn’t keep a record of its mental health cases. But let’s just suppose for discussion’s sake that mental health problems such as depression and anxiety were indeed non-issues back in the day. This would then mean that the economic and societal pressures of the last 100 plus years have changed that.  The tight-knit social fabric and the deep-rooted communal values that defined the precolonial era started to become undone as people, mostly men, moved to urban areas to look for work. As families were separated, community support systems became weaker. This weakening continues until this very day for various reasons, for example, divorce and the migration of family members outside the country. In addition to this, poverty and unemployment have left many young people lost and uncertain about their future, wondering if their lives are worth living. In war-torn countries, many suffer from deep-rooted trauma. The point is that if depression and anxiety weren’t African problems before, they certainly are now. The notion that people suffer from mental health issues now more than they did during a certain period in history, does not give us grounds to leave them unaddressed.  

What we have now are thousands of people who carry their mental health struggles silently like a painful secret. There is a stigma attached to seeking help for depression and anxiety, be it from family members, a church or school leader, a counselor, or from a registered psychiatrist. The very thought of sitting in a chair and discussing our hurts and trauma makes many of us uneasy with the fear of how our society will perceive us if they ever found out. I believe that we have somehow adopted the line of thought that not addressing our weaknesses makes us strong. Black people are strong and resilient, even more so than white people, we are implicitly or explicitly told.  However, we need to learn to be less afraid of addressing our weaknesses because this is actually what will make us stronger. Furthermore, suffering from depression or anxiety does not indicate that one is completely losing the plot. Most people go through periods in life when they are mentally or emotionally unwell. What varies from person to person are the causes, the frequency, the severity, and the length of these periods. If you were physically unwell, you would do what you can to get well. You would perhaps visit a doctor or a clinic, or seek treatment. The same should be done for mental and emotional unwellness.

The reason why I opened this piece with a snippet of my struggle is that I believe we should normalize these conversations, and allow for an exchange of experiences and insights. The reality is that mental health issues are not confined along national or continental lines. They indiscriminately affect many people and diminish the potential of the young, sometimes cutting short their lives. A time must, therefore, come when we are okay with saying that we are not okay.

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