Zimbabwe: A Conversation About Mental Illness, Stigma, and How We Can Do Better

I’ve never shied away from talking about my battle with depression and anxiety. Triggered by my mother’s passing away, I’ve fought through the highs and lows and shared my story through that journey. And the reason I share these stories is to always stress this point: therapy saved me, and it can save you or your loved one.

It’s not my intent to sound preachy, or take up too much of your time. So I will try keep this conversation about Zimbabwe and mental health as concise as possible.

 

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I’ve never shied away from talking about my battle with depression and anxiety.

What is Mental Illness? Who’s At Risk? What Are the Causes? and Is it Treatable?

“Mental illnesses are health conditions involving changes in emotion, thinking or behavior (or a combination of these). Mental illnesses are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities.” – American Psychiatric Association

“There are many different types of mental disorders. Some common ones include anxiety disorders such as panic attacks and post-traumatic disorder, mood disorders such as bipolar disorder and bipolar disorder, pyschotic disorders such as schizophrenia, eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, and personality disorders.” – Medline Plus

“They can affect anyone, regardless of age, race, religion, or income. But people are still afraid to talk about them due to shame, misunderstanding, negative attitudes, and fear of discrimination.” – MakeItOk.orgMakeItOk.org

“There is no single cause for mental illness. A number of factors can contribute to risk for mental illness, such as genes and family history, abuse, alcohol, brain injury and more. Mental disorders are not caused by character flaws. They have nothing to do with being lazy or weak.” – Medline Plus

“Mental illness is treatable. The vast majority of individuals with mental illness continue to function in their daily lives.” – American Psychiatric Association

The Stigma of Mental Illness

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Photo by Robin Hammond: In some parts of Africa, people with mental illness live in awful conditions and are subjected to inhuman treatment such as being chained to trees.

Let’s talk about the stigma: mental illness is not a product of evil spirits or witchcraft, and although prayer is a wonderful thing, people should realise that mental illness is a medical condition. If you broke your hand, would you think it was spirits? Would you simply pray over your shattered arm and wait for it to fix itself or you go to the hospital, get some medication to handle the pain, have the bones reset and put in a cast?

It is important to educate ourselves, friends, and family, and even strangers about what mental illness is and is not. The sooner we understand it, the sooner we can erase the stigma, create an environment people can be open about their struggles, and get them the help they need.

Accessibility for the Mental Ill

Now, let’s assume you’re past the stigma, there is also the issue of accessibility, or lack thereof, to mental health counsellors and treatment. For those who know they or their loved one needs help, there are not enough professionals in Zimbabwe available to cater to the demand. And in addition to this scarcity, the likelihood of finding one becomes even more daunting if you do not live in any of the major cities. And if geography and professional availability is not an issue, then cost and affordability becomes another barrier.

So how do we address accessibility? One long-term solution relies on institutions of higher learning and other healthcare-focused organisations (government included) committing to educating and training more mental health professionals nationwide.

Another solution could involve exploring online therapy services that can be accessed through video chat, texting, and phone call, thus allowing mental health professionals in Zimbabwe and abroad to reach new communities and more people. This could involve internet providers partnering with community centres, clinics, and other public spaces to facilitate these sessions.

And with regards to cost, incentivising mental health professionals to do pro bono work in exchange for tax break incentives and write-offs would be a good idea. In addition to this, exploring health insurance companies, mental health coverages, and evolving them accordingly in ways that benefit the consumer.

In the short-term, we have to resort to creative ways of making sure those with mental health issues get the help they need. This could include, for example, programs such as the Friendship Bench Project based in Zimbabwe that is created to enhance mental well-being and to improve quality of life by providing sustainable community-based interventions that are evidence-based, accessible, and scalable.

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A community counsellor speaks to a patient on the Friendship Bench.

The Economics of Mental Illness

In a country struggling on many different fronts, mental health may not appear high on the list of priorities for a government or its citizens, but it should be to anyone that understands the economics of mental health. And to those that don’t understand, I suggest you read the World Health Organization’s study, exploring the link between mental health and a thriving economy.

But to summarise the report for those who may not feel motivated enough to read it for themselves, there is a direct correlation between bad mental health policies and initiatives and lost economic productivity in the workforce. And so, as seen in other countries that take mental illness seriously, a sound policy has a positive effect on the overall health of your workforce, both mental and physical: you see a reduction in suicides, burnout, workplace violence, etc.

In Conclusion

In a country with high unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, economic uncertainty, and political tensions, if there is a time that many Zimbabweans have become even more susceptible to mental illnesses, it’s now. And unfortunately, whether these mental health struggles are caused by genetics or triggered by other life stresses, they go undiagnosed, underreported, and untreated. This needs to change, and it begins with open dialogue, which inspires us to combat the stigma, inform and educate those with the resources to make a difference, and get help to those who need it.

Sincerely, Kwapi Vengesayi

My Journey And Past Thoughts About Mental Illness:

Losing My Mother & My Battle with Depression

Depression and Being a Duck

Help, Don’t Judge: Mental Illness and Suicide

Kwapi Vengesayi  is an Amazon four-time bestselling Zimbabwean author based in the United States and all his books are Available on Amazon.

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