Mental health needs to be taken seriously

“Anything that’s human is mentionable, and anything that is mentionable can be more manageable. When we can talk about our feelings, they become less overwhelming, less upsetting, and less scary.” — Fred Rogers.

Mental health is important for everyone. So, please, know that if you’re facing a mental health challenge, you are not alone!

Mental health is fundamental to our collective and individual ability as humans to think, emote, interact with each other, earn a living and enjoy life. On this basis, the promotion, protection and restoration of mental health can be regarded as a vital concern of individuals, communities and societies throughout the world.

I am no expert in mental health issues but if I can give advice to somebody that’s silently struggling, I would be quick to borrow the words of an American singer Demi Lovato who remarked: “You don’t have to live that way. You don’t have to struggle in silence. You can be un-silent and they can live well with a mental health condition, as long as You open up to someone about it,”

As they say, a problem shared is a problem half-solved. So, don’t be silent. Talk to others. Unpack your fears, share your problems.

There is hope, even when your brain tells you there isn’t.

Another young American singer, Selena Gomez advises: “If you are broken, you do not have to stay broken.”

Before we go on, perhaps it is important that we define mental health. What is it, exactly?

According to experts, Mental health includes our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It also helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others, and make choices. Mental health is important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescence through adulthood.

Mental health refers to cognitive, behavioural, and emotional well-being. It is all about how people think, feel, and behave. People sometimes use the term “mental health” to mean the absence of a mental disorder.

Furthermore, Mental health is a state of well-being in which an individual realises his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively, and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.

However, as Winston Churchill once said: ““If you’re going through hell, keep going.” And so, like the proverbial Tsokonombwe, keep jumping forward to your destination.

These past few weeks have revealed something to us, that there’s a strange thing going on around us.

There is a new truth that most of us are not yet comfortable to accept as a fact and yet it is a looming different type of pandemic that is wrecking havoc silently.

Painful to note that after a brutal cold and dark winter of fighting Covid-19, we are left to face yet another sad reality of our time as we continue to see a steady uptick in numbers of mental illness and suicide deaths.

The stealthiness of this new enemy, and its disposition to be sneaky as it is happening at such an alarming pace has made it even tough to comprehend.

Within a space of weeks we have lost prominent members of our society, a high profile member of the Clergy community and more recently a highly reputable Deputy Speaker of parliament just to mention a few.

It’s becoming clear that these are not just few isolated cases, there are many more of our people that are suffering in silence and many are possibly succumbing to these pressures without being helped or noticed.

Most times we are left with more questions than answers as to what can lead someone to end their own life.

I remember when the pastor from Mzuzu took his own life few weeks ago, it was very difficult for most of the people to reconcile that reality.

How can a man of God choose to end his own life?

And obviously I can only imagine the pain that is left in those who might have lost a close relative or friend.

But even worse is to even imagine what could have possibly driven them into such an ending.

What’s even more painful is that in many cases we may have just missed clues and failed to act accordingly.

Sadly enough, these are cases that are not reported and there is almost no data and credible awareness.

Yet the question that we all have to figure out and try to answer is “why now?”

What has suddenly triggered this spike?

Is it the economic stress or the pandemic fear?

What about our social cultural norms including relationships and upbringing.

Of course I know very well that in a country like Malawi we are not yet acquainted to this, and that meaningful discussions haven’t taken place as much.

‘MUST be strong’

So my views are limited and strictly from a layman’s perspective. And so please you will have to bear it with me

However almost all experts that I have spoken to agree that mental illness can be caused by different factors and that these factors may interact to produce an overall cumulative effect on one’s mental health

Mrs Wezi Chisiza is a psychologist and lecturer at Chancellor College University of Malawi. In her professional view, she says that understanding and explaining mental issues can be explained using a biopsychosocial approach (Biological, Psychological and social factors)

There are biological factors that that should not be ignored like genetics, disease, injury, hormones, diet, drugs, alcohol, toxins etc.

Multiple social, psychological, and biological factors determine the level of mental health of a person at any point of time. For example, violence and persistent socio-economic pressures are recognized risks to mental health. The clearest evidence is associated with sexual violence.
Poor mental health is also associated with rapid social change, stressful work conditions, gender discrimination, social exclusion, unhealthy lifestyle, physical ill-health and human rights violations.

There are specific psychological and personality factors that make people vulnerable to mental health problems. Biological risks include genetic factors.

At the same time we also have to start looking at some of our tendencies on how we interpret information through a filter of personal experience or preferences.

This is what causes subjective thinking and leaves a huge Psychological impact in most of us.

Our beliefs, coping skills, emotions, resilience, emotional intelligence and cognitive biases are a result of our subjective thinking.

And as you know subjective thinking at times forces us to see things from the single subjective perspective, and when that happens one can lose the objectivity and lose their mind in the process.

Especially in most cases involving men, we are seeing a disproportionately high number of suicide deaths, and that should be a concern for most of us.

I personally think we need collective responsibility to create more safe spaces for they can seek and access help easily.

Our gender-role socialisation is a huge factor and it affects the help seeking behaviours in most men.

From a young age men and women develop attitudes towards acceptable gender roles based on cultural norms and values.

For instance, our culture expect men to be self-reliant and have emotional control and with beliefs like ‘men don’t cry’ (mwamuna salira) put more pressure on men.

The truth of the matter is that crying is a resultant emotion of pain, sadness and sometimes happiness and has nothing to do with gender of the person expressing that emotion. A grown woman, a grown man can cry, it is ok just as it is ok for a child to cry. Crying is a form of communication.

In other words most men in our society are socially wired to hide and conceal their emotions. They are expected to solve issues on their own.

These expectations to an extent restrains most of our men from seeking help.

Because of that hesitancy most men become vulnerable with no copying mechanism and no where to express their emotions hence they feel trapped and lose a drive to live.

Most men are simply trying to conform to society’s expectation that “a man MUST be strong.” there’s a limit to what you can handle.

These social stressors like culture, work, trauma, social media, poverty, can exacerbate the ferocity of pressure on individuals and if not managed or treated in time can lead to serious illness or suicide.

Like I said it’s time to do our part and embrace collective responsibility. We need to empathize for others.

I think this is where we can all make a difference.

I have also observed that in such unpleasant and pervasive way we have become so much toxic and very harmful to each other.

The level of this insidiousness has now become so apparent with every day incidents of so much online violence.

Trolls leaving intentionally provocative or offensive messages on the internet in order to get attention is no longer a strange thing.

I was shocked last week when a beautiful performing young lady from RSA was viciously attacked and body shamed by people who posted such inflammatory, insincere and digressive messages after a photographer leaked a photo of her showing parts of her inner body.

To my surprise, all this was all done purely just for the troll’s amusement.

‘Load of crap’

There was no regard for the effect and trauma that would be left on this 25 year old young lad.

In one of her responses she said that she had no energy left to respond to her attackers. This was a sign of a young lady melting downright in front of us.

The truth is that a human brain is just an organ and can only take that much.

We need to build a culture that seeks to protect our young girls and women.

We should not tolerate to be introduced every day to those who incline easily in becoming sort of mocking bullies on social media without any justification.

Most of our young people are already subjected to so much pressure. They have to fit in the world of social media and it’s unrelenting demands.

They worry about their looks, what they possess and how many people follow them.

And to make it worse we see how many app developers are tweaking their algorithms to prey on unsuspecting young people with so many filters

And lastly, I would like to caution and urge those of my colleagues in the faith community to take a leading role in creating safe spaces for those that are in need of help.

As a leader in a faith community myself I have always found it very fascinating and startling how most of us especially in the church are quick to label everyone with mental illness as demonic. This has caused stigmatization and made others to stop counting on us for help for fear of being viewed as demon possessed.

When one has mental issues, we are quick to judge. “Amasuta chamba uyu,” or “Anamulodza anthu akumudzi kwawo.” What load of crap.

Let the church be that salt and light. And for most of people people with mental illnesses have and they need a light of hope and love from us.

Again, let me emphasise that the government need to play a leading role in matters relating to mental health. For the country to develop, it requires healthy people to work, and by healthy people I mean both physically and mentally.

I believe that mental health is fundamental to our collective and individual ability as humans to think, emote, interact with each other, earn a living and enjoy life. On this basis, the promotion, protection and restoration of mental health can be regarded as a vital concern of individuals, communities and societies throughout the world.

And for this reason, the government MUST take it upon itself to ensure that mental health is given the attention it duly deserves.

However, in order to achieve this, there is need for an Action Plan in place that requires clear actions for the governments, international partners and local NGO’s. Largely, the Ministry of of Health will need to take a leadership role, and all else will work with them and with international and national partners, including civil society, to implement that plan.

Humbly, I appeal to President Chakwera to include mental health as a priority in his government’s people-centred agenda and make it part of the reform program and that he delegated the Vice President Saulos Chilima to map up a strategy with the help of health professionals on a viable mental health blueprint.

Let me sign off by saying that Mental health problems don’t define who we really are. They are something we just experience. Just like, when we walk in the rain and we feel the rain, but, importantly, WE ARE NOT THE RAIN and as one Mokokoma Mokhonoana aptly said: “Increasing the strength of our minds is the only way to reduce the difficulty of life.”

Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders. Mental health is an integral part of health; indeed, there is no health without mental health.


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