Something is regarded as taboo if it is not prohibited by social custom, and at many times, association with that some kind of taboo subject is frowned upon, even forbidden. Such is the case with mental illnesses in Africa.

Mental illnesses such as schizophrenia, suicidal thoughts, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), are considered improper to discuss across the majority of Africa, specifically because there is so much stigma associated with them. Africans’ perceptions of mental illnesses are based on their cultures and traditions, which, as a whole tends to regard mental illness as a source of suffering from the spirits of the dead, demons, witchcraft and spells. In the Shona language of Zimbabwe, they say “Akagarwa nemweya yetsvina”, which means a mentally ill person has some form of spirit in them which causes illness. In Uganda, they use the term “Mulalu”, meaning a mad or useless person.

The major problem with mental illnesses in Africa is that they are incorrectly perceived as a spiritual issue, rather than a medical one. Unlike people who suffer from other chronic illnesses, people with mental illnesses are often hidden for long periods of time, until they “heal”. This becomes an ongoing cycle for most families, as it does not treat the cause so much as bury it. In circumstances where “healing” takes a lot of time without yielding change, the patient is taken to a traditional doctor for cleansing. This does not make the illness go away, as mental illnesses require structured and educated treatment – usually in the form of therapy or medication, or both to manage. If a mental illness sufferer relapses again, the spirits and demons are regarded as stubborn, and other traditional measures – ones that are not therapy, are taken.

Growing up with Pastors as parents meant living the perfect life.  It came as a shock to my parents when I was diagnosed with depression and bipolar disorder at the age of 19.  This had to be kept hidden from everyone else, including my siblings, as I was meant to have a life that portrayed anything else than perfect.  Seven years down the line, my siblings and the rest of the community came to light on this issue. There were mixed feelings concerning this, with others having questions on how a Christian would end up having this illness. This just made it clear that there still is a lot that society needs to learn on mental illnesses.

In Zimbabwe, such relapses are known as “Mwedzi mutete”, meaning there is a certain time in a month when a mental illness sufferer goes through their ordeal. And if left alone and unattended, they run away, undress or beat up people. According to Zimbabweans, this is quite common for people who have severe cases of mental illnesses.

During these times, people living with mental illnesses are often tied to trees, or hidden in houses until their restlessness abates. In countries such as Kenya, Somalia and Sudan, it is believed that supernatural powers possess a person, and demand something from the relatives; and that these powers do not leave until their wishes are granted. As such, family members or relatives of the “possessed” do not disclose this information, which results in even more cases of untreated mental illnesses living behind closed doors.

In the urban areas of Africa, the stigma has not yet improved. Because of an ongoing influx of people moving from rural to urban areas, outdated perceptions of mental illnesses prevail and even rub off onto the worldviews of the “urban” people. Even in metropolitan environments, mental illness sufferers are often isolated, or dispatched to churches or traditional healers for assistance that does not reflect their wants or needs. That the disclosure of mental illness in a family member is considered shameful prevails, and as such, most cases go unreported.

This context explains why mental illness advocacy and understanding fails to gain traction across the African continent. Instead, people suffer in silence. There is so much that needs to be done in order for Africans to embrace and accept that mental illnesses are just like any chronic illness, but how this will change requires a great deal more thought, and a great deal more investment.

I believe our societies need to be educated more on the issue of mental illnesses. As it stands, most communities disregard people with mental illnesses, particularly if the patients are Christians.  Our societies do not understand how one can pray and live a Godly life yet still have a mental illness.  More awareness campaigns are needed, and more stories of mental illness patients should be shared in order to spread awareness.


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