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Saturday 20 January 2018
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Mental Health: A Challenge Africa Must Rise Above

Mental Health: A Challenge Africa Must Rise Above

Mental health is not an easy topic, especially in Africa where millions still believe in magic and witchcraft. But a new attitude is coming through, driven partly by the cost that anxiety and depression have on business.

In February 1945, weeks before the end of World War ll and the death of Adolf Hitler, a 75-year farm labourer in England had his throat cut and his body was pinned to the ground with a pitchfork.
The mystery has never been solved, but Charles Walton is widely viewed as the last person in Britain to be murdered for witchcraft.

Today, the adventures of Harry Potter have entertained millions around the world, but 200 years ago, witches in Europe were tied to a pole and burned alive.

The victims were usually old, often with a mental illness like dementia. Even talking to yourself, something most of us do, was a link to the devil.

Mental health has long been taboo, a sense that something is wrong at the heart of your being, bad enough to be pushed from society and treated as a freak.

In Africa, it can still be the case.

Problems of the body usually come with symptoms, from spots to shakes or a change in temperature. But the mind is more difficult, and in parts of Africa, allergies, depression, even homosexuality, are seen as possession by demons or a choice of stubborn folk who should know better.

A survey of more than 700 employees estimates that Zimbabwean companies are losing more than $100m per year in wages and productivity through mental or stress-related absence from work.

Stigma stops a lot of workers from seeking treatment, while other go to traditional healers.

The study revealed that 43 per cent of staff are in distress in a country where years of misrule have added to the burden.

Symptoms include worry, insomnia, difficulty in thinking clearly, depression, a lack of energy and feeling tense or emotional.

Memory Nguwi is a consultant who led the survey. She says, “one-in-five workers suffer anxiety, with vague feelings of fear, panic attacks and worries of going out alone.”

And there are physical symptoms: headaches, back pain, feeling bloated, blurred vision. “Others have a permanent state of nausea,” Memory says, “upset stomach, pressure or a tight feeling in the chest, tingling in the fingers, sweating, palpitations and fainting.”

Post-traumatic stress disorder or PTSD comes to people in the aftermath of something terrible, and whole communities may be affected.

In Rwanda 23 years after a genocide that saw 800 000 killed in just 11 weeks, the country is in a national state of PTSD. Uganda went through the same after Idi Amin murdered 300 000 of his own people from 1971 until he was deposed eight years later.

Mozambique had re-education camps, Zimbabwe endured the Gukurahundi genocide of the 1980s, South Sudan is still at war, and African women suffer the highest rate of rape in the world.

The scourge of HiV has left millions of orphans, and corruption in oil-rich Nigeria, Angola and Equatorial Guinea has pumped money into pockets of a few while the majority are destitute.

But there is good news. Most African universities now have a school of psychology. Trauma counselling is at the core of nursing, and aid groups have begun to understand the need for mental wellbeing.

Visitors to Africa often come away amazed at the smiles and laughter in poor communities, and the resilience of people from Kenya to Cameroon.

Awareness and education has brought a new voice to the mind and its maladies.
In Africa, millions still believe in magic and potions. Witches were never burned at the stake but, as in Europe, mental issues have often been blamed on the supernatural. Those accused risk death at the hands of a mob and, like Charles Walton who died just 72 years ago, the murder of a wizard may be left unsolved.

But there’s a growing notion of understanding. Where once you had to be mad to see a psychologist, keeping a healthy mind is now the same as taking your body to the gym, playing sport or cutting down on fat and sugar.

The financial loss from mental health is a spur for companies to help staff, and studies like the one by Memory Nguwi, are vital in taking Africa to a state of wellness.