Are Africans ready to talk about mental health?6 minute read

With art by Monica Obaga

The first time I had a sneaky suspicion that my brain did not quite operate like other people, I was twelve. It was my first year in a new school, in a new country, on a new continent, and I was not happy. It was a type of ‘not happy’ that began to wrap itself around my character, to lay a base foundation for everything I said, did and thought. It was generally unaffected by superficial highs and was fed directly by superficial lows.

And then, it lifted. And I could scarcely remember the feeling of it, so concretely was it gone. By fifteen my best friend and I began to research mental illness. We filled out survey after survey of those ‘tick yes if you feel this way’ questionnaires, the answer always overwhelmingly ‘you are most likely depressed, seek professional help’. I didn’t.

“Africans don’t get depressed”

In my view, the logic did not make sense. I knew depression from books and from films and depression did not look like me. Depression followed trauma. Depression was a mature adult woman. But most of all, depression was western; it was not African.  

When I was sixteen I went through a two-month cycle of extreme lows and then extreme nothingness. I remember my best friend with a gentle frown on her face saying to me, “this could be serious”. I pushed away the thought when I felt my brain returning to me. I knew teenagers were supposed to be quite hormonal with extreme mood swings so I thought, that could be what was occurring here.

When I was eighteen, I would tentatively suggest it as a concept. Like one talks to people about a possible crush. ‘What about me and depression? What do you think about that?’ As I told more people, I began to feel less shy about it. I went away to university (new country, new continent) and I tried a new policy for a new me: I would tell people about depression like we were a confirmed item. ‘Oh yeah, depression and I are totally together but it is still early days, who knows if this is for life’. I went back home for the summer. Warmed by a night of nostalgia and fun, I whispered to an old friend about my new ‘relationship status’ with depression, “But we’re African… Africans don’t get depressed.” I wilted.

Illustration by Monica Obaga for Of Africa

Pause.

I lived in Brussels for twelve years before moving to Nairobi for six and then leaving again to go to Vancouver for university. I’ve never felt Belgian or Canadian or Kenyan. I have felt all while being none. As much as I can find some comfort in myself and my cultural identity, there is still an overwhelming need to feel African. Truly African, no asterisk, no fine point.

Unpause.

Two years later, I am on the phone with my boyfriend. We are still in the honeymoon phase: “No you hang up, no you hang up.” Except in this moment, I really do want to hang up. I try to pretend for five minutes until it slips out. “I need to go.” I can hear the deflating on the other end. The confusion and hurt. “Why?” he asks. I know enough to shield him from my depression (after all, he is African too) but not enough to know how. “What are you going to do?” he continues, trying to tease me out. “Nothing,” except I have forgotten to add the smile and I am left with the truth. Later I stare at the ceiling of my bedroom and I do nothing for hours.

What follows is dark and sad and long and hopeless. I isolate myself. I sink. I am scared away by a psychiatrist who immediately suggests medication. I sink.

“But why couldn’t I speak earlier?”

Then, I run home. I start talking. I talk to my brother. I talk to my friends. Ones who know how to listen and lift me up as they do so. Ones who know when to say ‘me too’. I talk to my mother. She encourages me. I ask her about mental health and Africans, she points to herself. I talk to my father. I’m nervous. I’m not sure why I see my father as the gatekeeper of my culture but apparently, I do. He listens. He holds me. He says (I hold my breath), “It is a shame that you felt you could not speak earlier.” (I exhale).

But why couldn’t I speak earlier? The World Health Organization in a recent report emphasized that research shows that countries with the most triggers for mental illness: unemployment, poverty, physical health issues, and violent crime, reside on the African continent. Health statistics are decidedly difficult to come by but the symptoms exist. Here in Kenya, the second leading cause of death amongst young people is suicide. The first is drunk driving. Anywhere from 20% to 40% of people seeking outpatient care in Kenya present with mental health issues. Even given those sparse and vague statistics, less than 0.05% of the already small health budget is focused on mental health.

But I am lucky. In fact, I recognize that I am amongst a privileged few. I can afford a life of private healthcare that is not available to most Kenyans. I take advantage of what I can. I try things now. Counselling. Therapy. Group therapy. Not yet medication, but I am not ruling it out. This African has depression and this African can do something about it. So she is.

*If you are in Kenya seeking mental health referrals, please visit this site for information of clinics in your area: http://kenyapharmtech.com/psychiatric-hospitals-kenya/

*If you are in Kenya and you just need to talk to someone (for FREE and with the option of anonymity), please visit http://www.befrienderskenya.org/, Kenya’s only Suicide Prevention focused charity

In accordance with our readership statistics:

*If you are in Ghana contact the Step to Life Foundation at 0244239629

*If you are in Nigeria contact the Suicide Prevention Initiative at +234 806 210 6493 or +234 809 210 6493

*If you are in Mauritius call the hotline 46 48 889 or 800 93 93 they are open Mon, Tues: 18-21 Wed, Thurs, Fri: 15-21, Sat 12-21, Sun 9-21

*If you are in Namibia call Lineline/Childline 61-232-221. They offer crisis support to children and adults in English, Afrikaans, Damara/Nama, Oshiherero, Oshiwambo and German, by phone, chat and SMS.

*If you are in South Africa contact The South African Depression and Anxiety Group. For counselling queries e-mail: zane1@medport.co.za. To contact a counsellor between 8am-8pm Monday to Sunday, Call: 011 234 4837 / Fax number: 011 234 8182. For a suicidal Emergency contact 0800 567 567. 24hr Helpline 0800 12 13 14. SMS 31393 (and they will call you back)

*If you are a child in Zimbabwe http://childline.org.zw/116-helpline/ This is a telephone-based crisis line that is available 24hours a day, every day of the year. Trained volunteer counselors provide multilingual counseling in English, Shona, and Ndebele.

For those in the diaspora:

*If you are in the United States contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at +1 800 273 TALK (8255)

*If you are in the United Kingdom contact the Samaritans at 116 123

*If you are in Canada and over 20, contact a Suicide Prevention centre in your area. If you are under 20, contact the Kids Help Phone at +1 800 668 6868

*If you are in Australia contact Lifeline Australia at 131114

*If you are in the Netherlands contact 113 for a free of charge, anonymous 24 hour hotline at 0900 0113

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Naliaka Odera is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of ‘Of Africa’. She is a Kenyan who has spent most of her years outside of the continent. She has an ongoing love affair with words. Her writing can be found at naliakao.wordpress.com.

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