Anytime there is a conversation on depression in a typical African setting, the most prevalent theme that keeps recurring is, depression is not a disease. Why would anyone want to say they are depressed? How do you even know you are depressed?
The fact that Africans in the 21st Century can still question the existence of depression is the main reason Mental Health Day celebrations should be commemorated with various activities and made a big deal in our homes, work and schools.
The celebration should not just be about a day’s activity looking at the mentality of Africans. My best friend of over 23 told me she was contemplating suicide.
Even for me who has a good idea about depression and mental illness, I laughed a bit before asking her whether she was serious about what she just said.
Deep down, I was hoping her answer would be no. Much to my dismay, she repeated herself with an emphatic yes. That was when I coaxed her into telling me her reasons.
She was privileged to be in London; she has a loving and ever-supportive family; she is smart and beautiful so why will she feel like ending it all?
The underlying answer is, she felt a depth of loneliness in her life she could not explain. In her mind, she was not enough; she wasn’t making her family proud enough and though her family and I were around, we seem too busy with our lives and had no time for her.
So, she was left with an empty room and her thoughts; that was when I asked her to seek medical attention for it. She was reluctant, but through persuasion, she did.
We as Africans tend to shy away from such deep conversations because most of our fears and insecurities are always reduced to mere comical issues or we just do not talk about them for fear of being labelled.
About 25% of African women suffer from depression and with our dilapidated mental health institutions or lack thereof, 85% have little to no access to mental health treatment.
Most Africans believe that mentally ill patients make themselves that way as the broader notion is that the condition is the side effect of drug abuse of various kinds, from prescription drugs to hard drugs.
African governments, in effect, do not prioritize mental health and most of the mental health facilities are concentrated in urban centres, leaving those in rural areas to their fate.
Another observation made by mental health experts with regards to Africa is that the continent views “acute mental health diseases as supernatural afflictions that can be cured only through spiritual or traditional medicinal interventions.”
Many send their mentally ill relatives to churches and “prayer camps” when these people just need medical attention. Some go the extra mile to keep their relatives in chains and tied to trees to be prayed for at these camps. This practice is especially prevalent in Nigeria.
The stigma surrounding depression and bipolar disorder has increased the number of suicides on the continent.
Last month, in Kenya, a 12-year-old girl committed suicide because she stained her school uniform with her period and her teacher taunted her in front of her peers. Another medical student in Ghana also committed suicide because he failed his examinations.
These individuals, I believe, had underlying mental health issues, most likely depression and people around them did not notice or their environment was not conducive enough for them to voice out their challenges. Thus, the best solution was to commit suicide.
Vibrant and enthusiastic individuals who could have contributed immensely to society are gone. We can do better as a continent. We cannot keep turning a blind eye to the state of our mental health.
Before anyone can be productive in any aspect of their lives, the person must be of sound mind. Let us acknowledge the dangers associated with ignoring mental health issues.
We need to be more open-minded about people who willingly come out to ask for our assistance and not treat them as outcasts.
African leaders must make mental health facilities available in every part of the country and the already existing ones must be in good working conditions. Doctors and nurses should be encouraged to specialise in mental health because a sound mind leads to a healthy life.
Mental illness is not a curse but a disease that needs medical attention like any other ailment.