Monday, June 3, 2013

We must become our brothers’ keepers again

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 02 June 2013

Almost three weeks ago, I received the following message from a medical doctor who is also a good friend:

“Hello Lukoye, hope you are well. I text with great sadness. Depression took my friend on Saturday. She hanged herself. It was chronic and she was in treatment for so many years. Still no one understands and there will be many more like her.”

As if to drive the point further home, a teacher suffering from mental illness emailed me last week to thank me for writing about the plight of people living with mental illness and, specifically, for trying to reduce the stigma society attaches to such illnesses. Here is an excerpt from that email:

“Am a graduate teacher living with a mental illness ... Am not even very sure of what I suffer from. It all started in 2007 while outside the country as an expatriate teacher ... It is the worst thing that can happen to a person and one needs love and care.

“Luckily for me I have a very loving wife and I generally live a near normal life. She monitors me in love and cautions me in case of an abnormal behaviour and I follow her advice religiously. However, I pass through humiliation everyday and so are my sickmates (sic).

“Before 2007 the term mad was like any other word in the dictionary. After my traumatic experience that had me repatriated, I became very sensitive to the term. 

Switch off

“Any time I am in a conversation and someone says ‘don’t be crazy’, which is ordinarily normal in a Kenyan conversation, I switch off. One day the principal of the school (where) I teach, while addressing the heads of departments, said: ‘leave that teacher alone, he is crazy, he was brought here to just grow old, retire and die.

“If you give him any class he will just butcher the learners.’ I felt so humiliated (even) though he was referring to another teacher.”

These stories illustrate just how pathetically we treat our compatriots suffering from mental illnesses.
We need to be aware that people with mental illnesses do not have signs on their foreheads proclaiming their diagnoses. The assumption we tend to make that everyone around us is just fine, and that mentally ill people are those “crazy” fellows safely “locked up” in Mathari Hospital is completely wrong.

Based on research estimates, one would not be mistaken to argue that anything between 25 and 40 per cent of Kenyans will have significant symptoms of a mental illness at some point in their life. This suggests that almost all of us have interacted with a person suffering from mental illness, and chances are that this person is closely related to us.

We must, therefore, be sensitive about our language, given the potential pain we cause daily as illustrated in the cited teacher’s case. 

Early signs

We must also be on the lookout for early signs and symptoms of mental illnesses both in ourselves and in our loved ones in order to get early interventions that often improve the prognosis. For instance, what happened to my colleague’s friend may have been prevented if we all understood the pain she was going through and provided a supportive environment in which to recover whenever she had an episode of illness.

We must become our brothers’ keepers again. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is the secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association, and a senior lecturer at the Moi University’s school of medicine; Twitter @LukoyeAtwoli

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