The Pain and Shame of A Taboo Most Personal
The issue of mental health is a subject many people don’t like to talk about from the east to the west and most certainly in Africa. We don’t want to hear it. Over a year ago, there was a news report from one of the Eastern European nations, which chronicled the severe neglect of children who were mentally and physically handicapped. The conditions these children were left in, was filthy and appalling. It was not fit for a dog let alone, a human being. For me, it was an eye-opener because I didn’t think such things still happened in Europe. Obviously, I was wrong and should have known better that there are things which would always make a society, no matter how well developed or rich look poor in its actions to a particular group of people. In Britain for example, where mental health campaigners fight hard to get heard, in particular, those from the BAME communities, there are still issues to be resolved, especially the treatment of those from minority communities.. A topic I have blogged about in previous times: In Conversation: Matilda MacAttram (Part I) & In Conversation: Matilda MacAttram (Part II) I won’t bore you with the statistics out there. It is my opinion that we are aware of these things but make a conscious effort not to think about it because it is depressing or it is not our area of concern. Yes, to every man his own and we are passionate about different causes until the very thing we paid selective blindness and deafness to finds a way to our doorstep. However, this post is not about mental health in Britain or Europe. It is about mental health in Africa.
Imagine my dismay and agony while watching this news report about the treatment individuals, who are mentally and challenged receive in Kenya. Now, I know it is very easy and comfortable to point fingers at Kenya and the Kenyan government but this story replicates itself across the African continent. Hence, we all have our fair share of this burden to bear. If you disagree with me, then let me ask you, when was the last time you saw a man roaming the streets of Lagos or Accra and cared? Did you not put it down to another ‘mad man or woman?’ And who knows, maybe you giggled a little because you felt their action of scratching all over or the way they talked to themselves or rummaged through the bin was funny. In fact, let’s go one better…some of us know of families, who are talked about in our neighbourhood with a son or a daughter that they hide away from public view for one reason or another. I do for I grew up in Benin City and this was not ‘them say, them say.’ I saw it for myself because the parents were afraid and ashamed of the name calling and being ostracised.
While this news story and the reality of the individuals featured, from Joseph to his mother to the children is depressing, the fact that 3 million, people are living with intellectual and mental disabilities in one country makes you wonder the total number of the population living in the same circumstances on the continent? What’s the difference between the mental health institutions in the west and what you find in Kenya or any other part of Africa? If you can answer that for yourself…maybe we can start talking about solutions.
The rejection, stigma, cultural, traditional and religious connotations which come with mental health and disability issues among other illnesses across the continent needs to be looked at with immediacy not tomorrow or next week but now. They may not be like you or me but they are human beings and need help to live as comfortable a life as possible. This post is not about me but permit me to use myself as an example, over a decade ago, I got sick. It was not easy on family or myself because I went from being a normal teenager in the space of one year to being the child carried from one hospital to another. By the time the heaven forsaken doctors finally made sense of what was happening, now this was after one misdiagnosis after another, it was too late. So, imagine being sent home with the words, there is nothing else we can do for you. But my parents did not give up and decided to take me out of the country for treatment and I found myself in London. However, there are words I have never been able to forget and I don’t think I ever will. To know that one of my father’s friends had told him to ‘abandon me at the hospital because children like me don’t survive, we waste our parent’s money, make them poor and then die.’ It was his opinion that if my father left me with no contact details, the British government would have compassion and treat me. I am assuming his myopic mind felt if I died, my father would not have lost too much money. If that can be said of someone who could live with the help of a machine based on the medical challenge I was faced with, then try and imagine what is said about people with mental health challenges among other disabilities.
I would also like to point out that we need to start addressing things for what they are and that includes the traditional medicine men to the church leaders. When a person appears before you, I am not saying don’t pray for them but when you are done praying and by all means, keep praying but please, please, please, advise them and those who brought them to you to take the individual to a hospital. Some things require commonsense not 40 days of prayer and fasting. And to the babalawo’s (the face of traditional medicine on the continent) I mean you all no disrespect but killing 20 cows to fatten you up is not the key either. Send them to a hospital after you have taken your ill gotten commission.
We cannot hide these issues away forever. We must and have to find a way to treat the different health issues which affects different people in our society but as it stands, Africa cannot boast of a structured primary healthcare. That much I know because I recently did a health piece for the current edition of the New African magazine and the statistics are alarming. It is estimated that by 2020, Africa needs over 800,000 healthcare workers from doctors to nurses to every arm of the health force which provides care for citizens but that will not happen because our governments neither have the capacity, will or mandate to ease this burden on its people. So I ask, how can we address the issue of mental health if there are people who are yet to get the most basic of healthcare? How many mental health specialists do we have? How many mental health counsellors, consultants, hospitals and experts can we boast of? When we start asking and answering these questions, then we can talk about ideas and strategic solutions to help us address this malaise which is not specific to Kenya but the African continent as a whole.