The Pen Pusher: Why do we trivialise mental illness?

“Next time it could be you or someone you love dearly on the unpleasant mental ropes. Together, we can do something; and the time is now.”
 My beloved paternal aunt has been struggling with clinical depression for more than five years. And it’s no walk in the park – neither for her, nor for those around her. This malady (because that’s exactly what it is) has robbed a once gregarious and cheerful person of her personality. And for the rest of us, it’s been gravely painful to witness.
What is Mental Illness, and What Isn’t It?
At times, she has her good days, and other times she has them bad days. When her days are bad, they really are very bad in every sense of the word. It is a very sad story, yet we seem not to care.
But my aunt is not alone. 
She is merely just a statistic in the growing number of Malawians who suffer from depression or have issues with mental well-being.
According to the World Health Organisation, one in four people will suffer some form of mental illness at some point in their life and sadly almost half of these cases go undetected. Let this sink in – that’s an estimated staggering 4 million Malawians with some form of mental illness or another.
Mental health has always been a taboo subject associated only with the most severe cases of mental illnesses. Mental patients are often disowned by their families due to the stigma that surrounds the condition. What compounds this is the fact that Malawi is a VERY superstitious country with so many people believing in myths. We have people that believe that mental illness can be caused by witchcraft or a curse cast by some sing’anga. Of course, this is a story for another day. But why the sudden spike in mental illness?
The truth is depression and other forms of mental illness have gradually increased over the years, due in part to our lifestyles and environment. (Or, could it be that awareness of the disease is higher today, compared to 20 years ago, and more are acknowledging it?)
The difference is Malawians do not talk about their (mental) problems but many people who walk among us are at least facing mild depression. A lot of people silently go through depression and have no one (or decide not) to confide in and many times turn to substance abuse to cope or even commit/ attempt suicide. Also, they consider having an emotional problem to be a weakness, so instead they attribute it to a physical problem and highlight things like their inability to sleep, back pain, headache and fatigue.
The seriousness and the prevalence of issues like depression, bipolar disorder and other mental health issues should be accepted and acknowledged first in order to be treated. Worryingly, Malawi’s mental health services appear to be a neglected and overlooked part of the country’s overall medical services.
It seems that most mental health departments are currently overburdened and understaffed. From personal experience, I know this is painfully true. And it’s not just the government hospitals that have an issue with insufficient mental healthcare practitioners. Even in the private sector, we have a shortage of qualified psychiatrists and psychologists.
We have taken our aunt to a number of mental health professionals and none of them has been able to help her shake off this debilitating disease. The only difference I notice is the increasing number of drugs that are prescribed during the consultation. Frustratingly, I do know for sure that the depression my aunt is experiencing can be cured.
Depression is not something one can snap out of, just like how people cannot snap out of diabetes or a stroke.
However, with enough help and support, the majority of the patients can be restored to normal. Yes, they may have a relapse as their emotions are more sensitive, but they can be cured with the right help. A very good friend of mine is a typical example of someone who went through a bout of depression and made a full recovery. Even though he is now completely cured, he’s still bitter about the way his employer treated him. 
According to him, they couldn’t or failed to understand what he was going through, and his absenteeism from work was chalked down to a negative attitude and indiscipline. As a result, he received poor appraisals and was overlooked for promotion.
In fact, even his psychiatrist didn’t want to put down ‘depression’ in his medical report because of the stigma attached and also the concern for his future employment. Paja anthu amafuna awone kaye munthu atavula ndi pamene amavomera kuti akudwala matenda am’mutu kapena kuti mutu waukulu.
Malawian employers and especially the human resources department will have to adapt with the times because my friend’s experiences will now become the norm in workplaces. Organisations must now more than never recognise this by doing more to incorporate employee programmes to help them manage the increasing stress better.
Programmes such as flexible work arrangements and subsidies for gym memberships are good ways to start. But more can be done and prevention is better than cure, they say. Don’t they?
Many cases of depression go unreported because firstly, the difficulty in diagnosing depression, followed by the inability of people to recognise the symptoms of depression themselves, many who are in fact depressed are unwilling and embarrassed to go forward for treatment. Depression is a dark shadow that appears at any time without warning to anyone.
Next time it could be you or someone you love dearly on the unpleasant mental ropes. Together, we can do something; and the time is now.
The sooner we recognise this, the easier it will be to help those who suffer from this disease.

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6 years ago

I agree with the writer about how neglected is the mental health services in our country. I am someone specializing in this area and most patients I meet started with a minor problem which could eventually grow. The fact is that no family is free from mental health problems. Literature shows that poverty is directly directly connected to mental health problems. So, depression in our country is a big problem, though statistics not known.

6 years ago

There was a time when Farm Radio Trust had programme running on MBC Radio, Zodiak and Mchinji Coummunity Radio regarding depression. It was called Nkhawa Njee. This program talked about depression as a mental illness. Indeed it is a health issue that need the attention of all. Za ufiti aside, we need this program back and the government or other health institutions should also prioritize this as a health issue. It is unfortunate and unethical for this psychiatrist mentioned this write to conceal the problem.

H Gola
H Gola
6 years ago
Reply to  Mphalabundu

Good article unfortunately not very clear on what causes or leads to depression. What are the tell tell signs?

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