One of the most difficult health challenges to deal with when it strikes in the family, or a group is mental illness. In one of our webinars, a specialist spoke on ‘Dealing with unseen illnesses’ because some mental illnesses are not seen! Can you see a mind that is troubled as we see the symptoms of malaria? Mental illness is when a person’s thinking, feeling, behaviour or mood becomes affected negatively by clinical depression, anxiety disorder, psychotic disorders, impulse control, or substance abuse. Sometimes the effect is visible. A mentally ill patient could simply go naked and run amok. In other cases, it is hidden for years, managed by the victim because they do not understand what is happening. Do you live permanently in fear, expecting the worst to happen anytime? Are your thoughts always negative? Are you paranoid about how your parents died and how you may die as they did? Do you think of death all the time like an obsession? Are you permanently sad, unable to laugh and enjoy the common things that people do? Are you in permanent grief over the loss of a loved one? Have you been unable to move on since your last breakup which took place years before? Are you having nightmares from a traumatic experience? You may need the help of a therapist.
In some cases, especially in old age, there is dementia whereby a person forgets who they are and cannot recognize family members. Sadly, mental illness is widely misunderstood, mystified, treated with suspicion and superstition and stigmatisation. Indeed, once you tell most family members or friends that you think they ought to see a clinical psychologist, they put up a big wall of defence. Am I mad, is the question they ask? Madness for them is the only reason that someone should see a psychiatrist. This is not correct.
Yet, mental illness is highly present in all societies. It comes in different forms. It can affect anybody, no matter the class, background, religion, or race. In the last three odd years since we started work as an interventionist NGO (Mind and Soul Helpers’ Initiative- MASHI) on mental health, using professionals to counsel and refer people, we have come to see how widespread, how misunderstood, how poorly appreciated it is in society. Today, I write not as a professional on mental health. I write as an advocate for the full recognition of and provision for mental health services in the country. I write to educate the public on why they should not hesitate to consult a clinical psychologist or a psychiatrist when a person has a mental illness, that is, when a person breaks down mentally. The professionals are not allowed to advertise their work.
Often, there are warnings, yet we ignore them. Do you have a son or daughter or cousin who lock themselves up in the room, avoid the rest of the family and remain moody throughout the day or week or month? That young man who returns from school a different person? That lady who is who suddenly said that school is not for her, that she would rather be a preacher. That young man who becomes violent in the hostel or in the house, screaming all manner of things. That young man or woman who is troubled by thoughts of suicide, thoughts of ending it all whether by jumping in front of a moving vehicle or taking the notorious sniper insecticide.
In the last three years, we have encountered too many persons who are down today because of trauma from the past. Why do some fathers or uncles like abusing daughters sexually from a tender age? What is attractive in a five-year-old child to a father, a full-grown man? Why should a father or a brother sexually abuse a child of five years old till she gets to fifteen? Why do some mothers keep silent even after catching their husbands molesting a girl child? Many years after the experience, some ladies start feeling the effect of the trauma and go through mental illness for the rest of her life. Some of the ladies are scarred or destroyed for life. Do you want to destroy that beautiful daughter of yours for life because of your sexual peccadilloes? Think twice daddy, think twice.
Sexual abuse is one among many. There is verbal abuse. There is physical abuse. Some parents like berating their kids, calling them all kinds of names. What such parents do not know is the indelible pain or sore such an experience leaves on the child. ‘You, ugly fool! That child grows up believing the insult of the mother or father or uncle. Some do not realise that even a baby can be traumatised. This could affect them forever.
The truth is that any behaviour which we do not understand should be brought to the attention of health authorities. First line of course is the general hospital from where a doctor could refer the person concerned to a specialist. Some people are just scared or reluctant about taking their family members to a psychiatrist. What will people say they always ask? They will say there is madness in our family. It is not what people say that matters. It is the health of the person that is crucial.
When a person in a family has mental health illness, family members need to show understanding. Some of the complaints, like sudden fear of doom, hot flushes in the body, seeing a dead mother daily, creeping sensations, fear that they could fall, vibrations and sensations in some parts of the body, are real to the sick person. It is not enough to say ‘snap out of it. They need help. We have encountered families who treat dementia patients with scorn and derision. One family accused the elderly woman of witchcraft. We must remember that the person concerned is not in control of his mind. True, it is difficult even trying to handle a family member who keeps returning to hard drugs or alcohol after being treated. It is double jeopardy to accuse a victim of panic attacks of stupidity or foolishness. It is double jeopardy to accuse a clinically depressed person of wickedness or deliberately disturbing the family.
Mental illness is like any other ailment. If one has a bone problem they go to an orthopaedic surgeon. If it is pregnancy, they go to a gynaecologist. Indeed, there is a type of mental illness which comes just after a woman gives birth. She should see a specialist. If it is the mind that has a problem, they should see a mind doctor- a psychiatrist. There should be no stigma attached to go to a psychiatrist hospital. A mentally ill person should not be taken to a pastor or a babalawo to cast out spirits. Mental illness is not caused by spirits. There are prescribed medications for treating the mentally ill. Sometimes, it is a long haul, lasting a lifetime. It could also clear within a year or two, depending on the severity of the nature of mental illness.
Finally, let us spread the awareness. Mental illness is not infectious nor is it something to be ashamed of. It is just like any other disease. As the slogan goes, there is no health without mental health. There is not enough information about mental illnesses in the country. There is also too much superstition about mental illness, even among some highly educated people. This therefore is a clarion call to everyone to take their mental health seriously. Traumatic videos and pictures should be avoided. Government should take mental health seriously. At the individual level, seek help if you hear voices.