By Viscount Francis K’Owuor—
“A desire to be in charge of our own lives, a need for control, is born in each of us. It is essential to our mental health, and our success, that we take control.” – Robert Foster Bennett
Perhaps, one area that has been misunderstood in Africa is the matter of mental health. In most African societies, mental ill health colloquially referred to as madness, has always been associated with either witchcraft, the work of demons or a punishment by the gods for some perceived wrongdoing. As a result, those suffering from mental ill health have often been stigmatized and ostracized.
This was also the case for Europe before the Industrial Revolution. During the early years of the Middle Ages, the community took care of the mentally ill. Later, hospices, then asylums developed to house them. London’s Bethlem asylum—better known as Bedlam—was founded in 1247, making it one of the oldest institutions of its kind. The term “bedlam” became associated with chaos, confusion, and poor treatment, which reflected the general attitude toward mental illness at the time.
Where mental problems were considered to have been caused by demons, a technique called trephination was introduced. Trephination involved drilling a hole in the head of the individual to let evil spirits out of the body. Violent victims were tied with chains and imprisoned in special houses far away from humanity and in squalid places. Others were taken through rituals to restore their health. With wrong diagnosis and ineffective treatment, the prevalence of mental retardation grew out of proportion. It is only after science took charge of human understanding that this problem got the serious attention it deserved.
Unfortunately, hundreds of years after major breakthroughs were made regarding the causes and treatment of mental disorder, people in Africa still suffer from misinformation on the matter. As a consequence, many lives are still being lost or wasted because of lack of a scientific approach to mental disorder. In recent times, cases of suicide, homicides, and mental derangement have increased, with little attention given as to the possible causes. Government institutions, including Universities, are too overwhelmed by contemporary challenges to allocate enough resources for research and civic education on mental health.
With such a background of institutional lethargy, it will be up to individuals to monitor their health and make proactive decisions to prevent disorder. Stress, depression, frustrations, injuries, trauma, among others, are all possible causes of mental disorder. Before thoughts of demon possession or witchcraft strike codes in the mind in the wake of a mental problem, one must investigate those other causes. Taking a scientific approach as opposed to superstition or mythology will be the only preventive and curative measure for mental disorder.
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