We are living in a time where mental health is gaining more and more awareness, and people are beginning the discourse about what it is and the significance in addressing its impact. People are also generally being encouraged to speak out more openly about depression (and other disorders) and are, in turn, receiving support from both those who have suffered from it, and those who have not.
The “we” above, I neglected to mention, excludes Zimbabwe and the greater continent of Africa.
You would think that Africans do not suffer from depression or do not ever experience sadness and loss, what with the way they are always jolly and vibrant and smiling. I’ve heard many tourists who have visited African countries say that they have never encountered happier spirits in all their privileged lives. You would think that the poverty endured by so many on the continent is, in fact, an enriching experience purposed to foster feelings of appreciation and gratefulness for the more important things in life. You might even begin to think that the saying, “Poor people are happier than the rich”, as believed by many wise thinkers, is true. But this fallacy in itself is for another post that I will write in the future.
The truth is, depression and mental illness, much like cancer, have always been considered to be a “white man’s” disorder; a foreign concept that cannot be comprehended nor explained within the context of an African home. In fact, the definition of mental illness back home depicts those crazies you would see in the street who have completely lost their minds and walk around naked, lacking shame; likely because they murdered someone and are now being haunted by the deceased person’s spirit. See, us Africans have always relied greatly upon spirituality as the solution for everything. If your relative has a terminal illness, if you’ve suffered your second miscarriage, if your husband constantly abuses you but you but you have nowhere else to go, if you’ve failed a Calculus exam – the answer to all of these circumstances is the same: Prayer. You bring it before God, and it will all be taken care of.
Now, in saying this, I do not, in the same breath, deny the power of prayer and the power that God has to bring us out of difficult situations, but Panado cannot be prescribed for all of headaches, and bruises, and labour pains. Each of these requires a different medication and a different approach; and the sooner we realise that dismissing chronic issues by sweeping them under the rug of ‘prayer’ and leaving them to lay there, untouched, is a huge cause for concern, the sooner we can save our generation.
“Instead of acknowledging what we go through, we allow our religion to lead us to bite our tongues for fear of ‘speaking bad things into existence’ ” – Marquaysa Battle
I’ve seen way too many youth my age and younger, take their lives because they most likely felt that whatever it was they were going through would bring shame to their families or, worse, that if they were brave enough to speak about it, no one would be able to understand. All because the repression of emotions and feelings has been encouraged and normalised in the African community, and the denial of mental struggles equated to resilience. All because the word “depressed” is a taboo word never to be used in African homes.
In Zimbabwe, the extent of the mental health crisis is shown in the statistics. There are only 12 psychiatrists in the whole country. Twelve! With the innumerable economic and political pressures on their shoulders, and a pacifying culture that does not allow open, non-judgmental discourse about depression, I imagine that a large, undocumented percentage of Zimbabweans suffer from it but either don’t know what to call what they are going through, or refuse to acknowledge it for what it is. Both groups without sufficient resources to deal with depression anyway.
The oppressiveness of not being heard and having one’s reality and feelings denied countless times by being told “Depression doesn’t exist, it is all in your mind. Go and read your Bible”, has resulted in a nation filled with comics. Zimbabwe is absolutely filled now with comedians: the minute anything happens in the country, even something that is detrimental to the economy and to their own lives, you will be sure to see at least 10 memes about it on Twitter within the next hour. We laugh, laugh, and laugh our lives away because that is the only way we have been taught is acceptable to deal with pain, aside from praying and drinking.
When will the joke stop being funny? When will people exhaust from trying to appear stronger than how they actually feel? I am writing purely from the perspective with which I am most familiar – which is Zimbabwean and African, but this issue is a widespread one within the Black community everywhere. The only way to change this pattern now is by destigmatising mental health; talking to our children and relatives about getting help early if they need it instead of silencing and dismissing them. No longer can we continue to ignore the signs and then be “surprised” when our loved ones who appeared to be happy on social media, suddenly take their lives. I am hopeful for a Zimbabwe and Africa that will start to recognise the importance of mental health and its impact on our lives. I am hopeful that we will continue to encourage resilience and perseverance in our people, but will also realise and acknowledge when there is a problem and when it is crucial to get help. Before it’s too late.