One in four Zimbabweans suffers from some form of mental illness, but there are only 13 psychiatrists in a country of about 15.6 million.
I think we all know someone from back home or someone who’s still back home right now that suffers from mental health problems, but we do nothing to help them….
I have a cousin (who’s name I’ve never been told) that suffers from some unknown mental illness and the family has hidden her away from us to the extent that referring to her as She Who Will Not Be Named a la Voldemort wouldn’t be a stretch. In all honesty I didn’t know mental health was an issue growing up in Zimbabwe. To me it was just a case of oh she’s slow, or anozviitisa and these phrases were normally said by those who should be doing everything in their power to help their situation.
We grew up surrounded by impatient mothers who didn’t understand why their kids weren’t top of the class and getting good grades whilst others excelled and their lack of understanding was shown through anger and impatience instead of the caring embrace that these children needed.
Mental Health Awareness Week recently passed and many publications were speaking on the issue but , after reading through a few articles I realised that maybe the issues facing someone from an African country would be different than those faced by their European counterparts. We have more things that could weigh negatively on us such as separation from loved ones and the pressures of having to assimilate in the workplace and society
Although can we really talk about Mental Health among Zimbabweans without first addressing the issue of the taboo surrounding it? So many of us rely on religion for the answer to our non physical problems instead of looking for other mediums such as the NHS or private health care providers to help us in our time of need. Faith is what gets us through our problems but if we continue ignoring the systems we have set up to assist us further then how can we address the issue?
The saddest thing about Mental Health is when it’s not something like Autism and Aspergers which, tend to be genetic conditions passed on from birth or a result of a physical complication during birth, it’s saddest when Mental Health Issues stem from the emotional, physical and mental abuse that we suffer at the hands of those around us.
My personal issues with Mental Health stemmed from my Dad’s side of the family and the general misogyny that was a part of my everyday life . My parents divorce was messy and they generally didn’t handle it well. This lead to me developing social anxiety and not wanting to go to school. Speaking to my mum was like speaking to a brick wall. It took a lot of courage but I was met with minimizations and she softened my issues until they became overreactions and oversensitivity. It was only when i went to University and I made use of the free counselling service that i knew what was going on and how to help myself. My mum finally acknowledged that I was depressed and we spoke and still speak about our mutual mental health today.
This got me thinking, what happens when you don’t have a free University counselling service and aren’t made aware of the mediums available to those with Mental Health issues? In Harare, a group of elderly women known affectionately as the “Park Bench Grandma’s” have taken it upon themselves to set up benches for the Friendship Bench Project these women are trained but unqualified health workers – who take turns on the park bench to hear stories. They listen to the girl that was raped and as a result attempted suicide, they listen to the man who knows he has a drinking problem but doesn’t know how to stop and they listen to the single mother struggling to raise her children.
“We used to talk a lot, ‘Do this, do that’. But now we ask them to open up, open their minds and hearts,”
Sheba Khumalo – One of Harare’s Park Bench Grandmas locally known as “Mbuya Hutano”
These women found a solution that combined the casual nature of a park bench and the respect granted to African matriarchs. It’s a method that has worked the project has supported thousands of people 40% being sufferers of domestic violence possibly caused by the economic situation in Zimbabwe.
Although this may not resolve their problems having someone to talk to who understands and sympathises is a form of support that tends to be underrated and we, in my opinion should take a note from anaMbuya Hatano and support friends and family members in anyway possible no matter how small