Mental Illness: Rethinking the Prejudice


The stigma that hovers around mental illnesses has broken strong family bonds and made the most caring person turn cruel. Marriages have ended, children have given up on parents, and many families have abandoned their sick ones to roam the streets in tattered clothes because of the uncertainties that follow mental illnesses. Shola Okubote explores how cultural beliefs hinder mentally sick people from living productive lives.

Chichi’s earliest memory of her mother’s illness is a haunting incident that happened when she was about seven years old. A neighbour’s chicken had run into their kitchen and her mother chased it all around the house until she caught it by its wings. She tied it up and beat it with a broom; Chichi watched her mother in shock until the chicken died. She remembered asking her mother why she beat the chicken, and she has never forgotten the fear she saw in her mother’s teary eyes as she responded in a whisper, “It is a witch; they sent it to kill me but I got it before it got me”.

Some years after the chicken incident, her mother lost her job as a teacher in a local primary school because of her mental instability; her father abandoned them and moved in with his mistress; neighbours publicly accused her mother of being a demon possessed and later called a relative of her mother’s from the village to come and take her away for treatment. The day they took Chichi’s mother to the village and sent her to her father and his new wife, Chichi’s uncle called her aside and said to her, “Don’t ever tell people that your mother is mad; they will feel more sympathy for you if you say she is dead than if you say she is mad”.

Chichi’s experience mental health 2is not unusual, in fact many relatives of mentally ill people in Africa can identify with her confusion and fear about her mother’s illness. The prejudice and ignorance that hovers around mental illnesses has broken even the strongest family bond and made the most caring person frustrated. Marriages have ended, children have given up on parents, and many families have abandoned their sick ones to roam the streets without medical care, while some even keep them locked up in basements away from the snooping eyes of people, all because they are afraid of being stigmatised.

Living a life with constant interruption from mental illness is hard, but as if that is not enough, many mentally ill people also have to deal with being abandoned and treated as less than human by their loved ones and society at large. Little wonder that it has been historically difficult to diagnose and treat mental health problems in Africa. Lack of support and the stigma of mental illnesses are some of the reasons that prevent many patients from getting the medical help they desperately need. For some who eventually get diagnosed and treated it still remains a challenge for them to get back to normal life because of the rejections and exclusions they face from society.

Mental illness is one of the most misunderstood sicknesses in Africa; cultural beliefs have distorted people’s perceptions of the sickness by suggesting that mental illness is a result of demon possession or spiritual attack by some unknown powerful enemies. Sometimes it is seen as a weakness on the part of the one affected instead of a psychological disorder that needs medical attention like any other ailment. The media is also filled with stereotypes; mentally ill people are often portrayed as violent and aggressive, who are dangerous to people around them. Insensitive words like ‘psycho’, ‘crazy’, ‘mad’ and ‘nuts’ have been used to describe mentally ill people by the media.

It is appalling that despite progress in the treatment of mental disorders, there is still no encouraging evidence to show that the stigma, myths and ignorance surrounding mental illness are changing significantly. Even more discouraging is that while negative attitudes persist, cases of mental illness among African women have not declined.

According to the World Health Organisation, the multiple roles women play in society place them at greater risk of experiencing mental health problems than men. More studies have also shown that “women more than men are likely to be adversely affected by specific mental disorders, such as anxiety related disorders and depression, due to the effects of domestic and sexual violence, and escalating stress levels”.

A significant number of women in war-torn areas and countries recovering from war have also been said to be suffering mental health problems, according to a study conducted by International Medical Corps (IMC). It has become a major health concern in some African countries, such as Liberia, Sudan, Rwanda and many others that have recently been through conflicts and wars.

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With this alarming increase, is very important that the attitude towards mental illness starts changing. One sure way of ensuring that is to start battling the prejudice with increased knowledge. Asking the what, why, how and when questions about mental illness will help both the patient and society to discard the myths of cultural beliefs, and change public attitudes from fear and rejection to acceptance and support.

These myths must be discredited so that those who experience mental illness can come out of their hiding places and go for medical help that will help them live healthier lives. A psychologist who specialises in trauma and depression is putting this into practise with a determination to change prejudice about mental illness one person at a time.

“There are many ordinary moments that allow me to correct ill- formed views,” says the psychologist, who prefers to stay anonymous. “I find them at the bus stop, the supermarket, on the bank teller’s line, at social gatherings, and even in professional conferences. Whenever I hear misinformation about mental illness, hear a joke or a derogatory remark, with tact and sensitivity I correct the situation.

“These teachable moments make me feel that my voice, though singular, can raise awareness. I am confident and brim with information to help others realise what is so wrongly represented in our world about mental illness.’’

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