‘White people have therapists and Black people have Jesus.’
This is how the conversation seems to go when the issue of mental health comes up. When one begins to broach the subject of having depression you are told to start smiling ‘or we will get the Pastor to come and pray for you.’
For many it was something that is seen as being far away, something that happens to teenagers on American TV or wealthy white girls who ride ponies in the United Kingdom. I must admit that I was one of these people.
Experiences in secondary school increasingly convinced me that issues of mental health were ones of privilege and wealth, somewhat akin to trying to figure out if your Porsche needs custom seat warmers or the standard ones are sufficient. It was something that was aligned to certain global regions, certain ways of life, and to a larger extent a certain race. I ascribed to the school of thought that doctors were for ‘real illnesses’. Proper things like cancer or chronic kidney failure. If you wanted to you could go the Bill Gates route and throw polio on that list.
Mental health was mainly about getting it together and getting happy. I preferred if you kept those Western tendencies in check as black people sucked it up and kept it moving. However, with time and experience being the best teachers I begun to increasingly learn this was not the case.
Years later I find myself sitting and waiting for a friend at a local government hospital psychiatric unit during visiting hours. I look around and I see a family waiting for their mother, a woman crying whilst her daughter holds her and a man trying to engage with his son. All brown like me, and none of them confining themselves to the barely furnished beige ward because they want to, but because they need to. Their presence here is no more self-inflicted than the people in the maternity trauma ward a little way down the hall.
Recently Chimamanda Adichie’s documenting of her struggle with depression was released by the Guardian Network. The article was subsequently removed but not before quite a few people had gotten wind of it. Many had attempted to reblog it and some had posted the original link stating that they ‘understood how this felt’ or how this was a brave conversation to have. With such a prominent person speaking on the issue seemingly the seeds for it were sown. The candidness of such a prominent figure within the continent speaking on an issue seemed set to do for mental illness what Binyavanga Wainaina seemingly did for sexuality. However, once the article was pulled the focus shifted and it became about the drama of publishing something that she did not want published.
And with that the conversation seemed to end before it could even properly begin.
Much as one must respect Chimamanda’s privacy the withdrawal of the article reflects a common occurrence in terms of engaging with mental health on the continent, namely a continual silence. Due to the stigma and misunderstanding surrounding mental health issues often those who experience it do not seek help. Many stay quiet due to the fact that seeking help could possibly be met with disbelief, exasperation or general misunderstanding.
Of the many pathologies the human body can suffer ones involving the brain are the most difficult to understand for a number of reasons. The first is the extremely complex nature of it which makes it difficult to understand. From the medication to the nature of the treatment in the form of therapists it is difficult to conceptualise the path to recovery, or if there is even one.
Another problem with understanding it is simply, seeing is believing.
One can show signs of cancer, one can express symptoms of chronic kidney failure, one can see a cold, but it is very difficult to see that someone’s mind is at this moment in time working against them. It is a difficult thing to understand because humankind’s need for social interaction means one simply relates things to oneself in order to understand.