The stigma of mental health

Gamuchirai Chinamasa

The stigma of mental health in Zimbabwe and Africa is alarming.

Families with a mentally ill loved one can be shunned and seen as a social outcast.

Family heads are then accused of witchcraft and casting a spell on someone for them to be mentally ill, or they could be accused of doing rituals to get money by making a family member ill.

Being a parent of a child that is mentally ill is challenging in Africa where mental illness continues to be associated with avenging spirits, witchcraft and demons which then contributes to serious discrimination.

There is a stigma even amongst health professionals sometimes.

Also in turn health professionals or care givers have noted how the stigma is even seen at the psychiatric mental institutions whereby there are not many visitors that come see the patients while they are seeking treatment-despite visiting hours being flexible, they don’t see many people being visited.

There is also hardly any public transport that comes to and from the institutions, most of are usually in the middle of nowhere, completely away from all civilization as if they were outcasts- you probably had never thought about that I assume?

Mental health is neglected in Zimbabwe as some people associate it with traditional harmful practices. Others blame the patients for their illness saying it is their fault and they must have done something bad or wrong to have this happen to them and that it was a punishment.

The care given to mental health patients is not the same as that given to patients suffering from other conditions such as HIV, cancer or diabetes.

Stigma remains the biggest issue with many cases of human rights violations when you hear of those that are mentally ill being beaten or even killed.

The only way to fight the stigma is to bring mental health awareness to all communities in Africa; and this should start from wards to national levels.

In 2019 in Zimbabwe, MOHCC launched a mental health strategy from 2019-2023 to promote early identification, treatment, rehabilitative and palliative services in non-common diseases, but despite all of this being done on paper, mental health care still remains  one of the biggest unmet needs of our time.

Anxiety and depression, which can lead to suicide, are said to be on the rise in Zimbabwe because of the prevailing harsh economic conditions and is a common silent killer.

Public health centers need to be fully equipped in order to deal with mental health issues.

A large number of people will be unable to find a suitable facility for support. Hence, we find there is an increase in suicide cases.

Most resources are being channeled to tackle diseases like HIV/AIDS, Covid19 and other common viruses but very little is being done about problems like depression and anxiety.

Stress is one of the major factors which trigger depression, and in Zimbabwe we live in a highly stressful environment. With this, you will most definitely experience despair and hopelessness, leading to depression and failure to manage this sometimes leads to people taking drastic measures, like committing suicide.

The World Health Organization estimates that more than 800,000 people die from suicide every year and that many more attempt suicide.

Depression starts when a person feels they are unable to find solutions for everyday challenges. Many people with mental illness might shy away from seeking treatment because of the stigma associated with it.

We cannot ignore the fact that in Africa, as far as mental health is concerned, we are getting somewhere, more people are discussing these issues openly and admitting their pain to trusted individuals.

There are also more groups and societies willing to talk about mental health and talking about it in our homes is also gaining momentum.

In rural Zimbabwe, if you ask about mental health, you will be told it is non-existent. They believe that tinenge tichingoenda nemhepo tichishungurudzika nefungwa.

To the bigger portion of the population it is something that cannot be understood or fixed therefore those that face this situation are bewitched and should be removed from the society to leave others to live their lives “normally.”

There is a need in Africa to have conversations around mental health in all its ugliness and honesty. The conversation around mental health should be normal in households and not feared or ignored at the dinner table.

It needs to be accepted and taken seriously in order to combat it as much as possible. The fight is won together and not apart, it is a community and continent fight because 1 in every 4 people struggles with a mental health disorder so if it is not you it is the next person.

It’s key to always stay informed about what triggers it and how to pick up on a mental disorder in your surroundings and even yourself.

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