Mental Illness and African Culture

by Keza Nzisabira | Dec 3, 2016

It is an odd paradox that a society, which can now speak openly and unabashedly about topics that were once unspeakable, still remains largely silent when it comes to mental illness - Glenn Close

Before you shake your head at the title of this think piece and move on, hear me out. I know this is a topic that many people try their best to avoid, but I think it’s no longer avoidable. It’s time to address it. In most African cultures, mental illness is a thing that happens in the West. But why is that? Why do we not like to talk about it? Many people are actually suffering from depression and many other mental illnesses but our “culture” does not give them a platform to voice their feelings. And please don’t tell me that suicide does not happen in our societies.

In Chinua Achebe’s prize winning book Things Fall Apart the main character commits suicide, so this is not something that has never happened. Let’s face it. This is not a “white trait”. This is not something that one can avoid until it goes away. One thing that perplexes me is how people will name illnesses such as bipolar or schizophrenia as spirits that have overtaken someone, and that’s why they’re hearing voices in their heads. And I get it, people try to explain what they don’t understand with what they do understand. That’s lack of education. And I hope that the more education our people get, the more they realize that not everything is blamed on spirits. I will also acknowledge that I’m not an expert on things of the spiritual world so I can’t tell you for sure that everyone who hear voices or see things is absolutely not spirits or demons.

I want to focus on the educated people though. We have gone to school; we know that mental illness is a chemical imbalance in one’s brain that causes all of this. But we’d still much rather not talk about it. We as African people and black people in general are survivors. Our history is marked with so many roadblocks that have not let us prosper as much as any other group. I admire our resilience and our ability to get back up and refuse to stay down. We are truly survivors. But because of this survivor mentality, we have been shaped to think that mental illness is a weakness, something that will hinder survival. It’s not true though. Or maybe we don’t talk about it because for centuries our European counterparts have been teaching us that we are intellectually inferior and therefore admitting metal illness is somehow playing into that narrative. Or maybe it’s because we’re so busy trying to survive and excel that it’s just not important right now; we have a lot more important issues to focus on. (It is possible to care and want to change many issues at the same time.) For whatever reason it is that we don’t talk about it, it needs to change I’m not talking for the whole black race or the whole continent. But it’s true that a large majority of us would rather pretend that it’s not happening. So what are some ways that we can help people with mental illness?

First we need to accept it. We need to move past this denial and accept that yes, even black people do have mental illness. It needs to stop being a negative stigma. This leads me to my second point which is education. People are generally ineffective in dealing with something they don’t know. Thirdly, we need to create safe spaces for people who suffer from such illnesses. Treat mental illness as we would a physical illness (The brain is part of the body anyways.) I’m not an expert on mental illness but I think these three points are what everyone would agree with as being the basic steps to dealing with this issue (emphasis on “basic”.)

Keza Nzisabira
Keza is majoring in International Relations. She's passionate about politics, loves reading and enjoys spending quality time with her friends. She's also behind the blog Life of a Contemporary African