I have written extensively on mental health, mental wellbeing and mental illness on my own website, blog and the Gbm Foundation for epilepsy and mental wellbeing of which I am the Country Director; and on numerous national and international media. But, these serious foursome Ss pop up again and again – seems like there will be no meaningful progress until they are squarely addressed.
S1: SPIRITUAL ATTACK
When you are in a very religious country or community, you should realize that religion and spirituality or whichever comes first to the people, plays a very big role in their lives. Indeed, long before ‘white man’ medicine came, people were cured or healed through incantations and other process including drinking various portions and following special protocols. A spiritual attack is when there is a belief that the origin of the attack is mysterious especial when no other logical explanation exists. Truth be told, no logical explanation exists to explain a mental health challenge or disorder, and the first stop when there is a crisis here, is mostly to a Man or Woman of God. Hold up, they are actually competing or on the same line of importance as the traditional doctors when we consider the second S.
Even where it can be ascertained it is a spiritual attack, the source must be rooted out right? Who else but a jealous person or witch/wizard can cause someone to have a mental health problem or illness? The predominant belief in our communities had always been that any sudden illness or death is superstitious and very suspicious. Mental health challenges or illnesses are no exception. Indeed, for these categories of ‘wahala’ (local slang for trouble), it is the norm and can only be cast out or cleansed by the traditional doctor aka Ngambe man (witch doctor) for us. I mean, if neither the spiritual healer nor the herbal healer cannot help, why not just chain up the person and let them waste away and die instead of bringing more embarrassment to all concerned? The next S comes in here.
Stigma is both from without and within. The society and even families stigmatize the patient and their family; and the patient loses all their self-esteem and stigmatize themselves by withdrawing further and further into their own ‘world’. Families get fed up trying to help while navigating all that stigma, and the patient’s ‘supposedly non-compliant attitude’ only makes matters worst. Tie them and lock them up or outside in a barn let them become whatever they want. The patients equally fed up with the treatment and stigma, lookout for ways to live their ‘freedom’ and to ‘communicate their frustration’ in anyway that appeals to their already very distorted cognition. Society notices and sighs in slushed sentences and all stakeholders are at a lost on what to and how to proceed. And then the next S.
Note I write the last two Ss in all caps. My own way of shaming them actually. Shame can make even families with the means to take their patients to the hospital and seek better and alternative treatment protocols not to do so. Shame is the outcome of all the stigma explicit or implied, and we all know how people could sometimes fight to protect their ‘reputation’. We have surely heard of ‘honour killings’ in some countries where families have taken the lives of one of theirs because of the shame this individual was bringing to their name. Some patients out of shame, could also contemplate or commit suicide because the life they now lead is definitely the skeleton what was before they fell ill and they can’t stand the pain, stigma and all any more.
It is therefore my humble submission that we in Cameroon have to address these foursome Ss if we are to really make any progress with any mental health campaign. Our realities are still far different from those of the west, I saw this first hand when I did a two months internship at the lone public psychiatric ward in the city of Douala. Many patients brought in are already so challenged and ill, it’ll take much more than a brief hospitalization to help them. Some even in the hospital don’t open up to get any little help available, they are ashamed or feel stigmatized even by some medical personnel – sad to admit.
Today as we celebrate World Mental Health Day under the impressive theme Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World, I salute the efforts made to raise awareness to the different issues involved surrounding mental health, but I add that we should step up our listening. Sometimes people hurt so bad but there is just no one to listen to you even when you want to trust enough to tell.
Marie Abanga is a phenomenal woman by every account who defines herself simply as a person of passion and a tale of talents. She runs a private psychotherapy practice in the city of Douala – Cameroon and be contacted through her website at https://marieabanga.com.