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Is Africa closer to breaking the stigma behind mental health?

An opinion piece by Thabiso Molapisi – Pretoria, South Africa

Year in and year out we find ourselves talking about mental illness, and recently there has been a surge of debates on social media; on whether depression is a mental status that one brings onto themselves, or if mental illness even exists. A young woman posted her mother’s sarcastic response to her telling her about her depression which led to a community of twitter users easily relaying their experiences on how their parents responded to talking and understanding depression. As humorous as the stories were, it further reiterated the notion that mental illness is not seen as an illness in the African community. ‘Burdens are for everyone, be a strong soldier on because life happens anyways'’, this is an example of a response given when talking about depression and with July being Mental Health Month in South Africa, it is only right we speak about the continuous stigma surrounding mental illness in African communities across Africa.

Many African countries relate mental illness with the supernatural, black magic and witchcraft. Some communities in West Africa believe that mental health can be solved with prayer and religion. For example, in Togo prayer centres are very common for the treatment of some mental illness. Patients in these centres are brought by their families and most of them have not received a full medical diagnosis. The patients are bound and chained, forced to live in their own filth and stay outside regardless of the weather or season. Most of them never get to leave and ever see their families again. The most common illnesses are anxiety, schizophrenia and Alzheimer’s. Grègoire Ahongbonon says people with mental illness around Benin, Niger, Togo and Burkina Faso; ‘’are the forgotten of the forgotten’’. Ahongbonon, a Benin native and the founder of Saint-Camille-de-Lellis a centre that helps patients with their medication and diagnosis, says most of the patients are treated like garbage, with little to no human dignity given to them.

Togo like some African countries have little to no policies for mental health or adequate mental health workers and facilities. According to an article written by WHO (2015), Togo has 68 mental health workers, one child psychiatrist, eight psychiatric units in a general hospital and three residential facilities. Nigeria, on the other hand, has a population of 200 million people, with WHO (2017) estimating that the number of people who suffer from mental illness could be anywhere between 40 to 60 million, with under 150 psychiatrists. The West African country has eight regional psychiatric hospitals and a department of psychiatry in 12 medical schools. Although Ghana is a bit more progressive than its western counterparts and has recently signed in a Mental Health Act policy in 2012, it still has a long way to go. With only 16 psychiatric hospitals based in its capital city Accra, 97% of the 100 people who need the help are not able to get.

In countries like Kenya and South Africa, mental health stigmas are seen to be less harsh by society and the government in these countries have put in place policies that include mental health patients. However, like Ghana, most of the mental health facilities in Kenya are in Nairobi and those who need it cannot access it. In South Africa, about 75% of people who need medical help do not access it and do not think it is important to focus on mental health illnesses. While it is relatively progressive in its policies, the South African National Health Insurance programme, which is supposed to boost access to mental facilities will not be fully implemented until 2025 or even later.

Mental health is continuously pushed to the back burner and even though there is progression, it is quite slow. A lot of prayer centre patients are subjected to abuse that is inhumane. It is more upsetting to think it that rather than learning to understand how to deal with mental illness, families would rather subject their loved ones to torture and abuse. It is even heart-breaking to hear how they speak of the shame they bring to their families. In celebration of Mental Health Awareness Month, help someone understand how to help you, by letting them know about your illness.

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