What you need to know:
- Recently, it has been touted that the next pandemic after Covid-19 is a mental health pandemic.
- As a country, we have simply refused to acknowledge the national crisis that is mental health.
Over the weekend, we woke up to yet another death by suicide of a young medical practitioner. It is extremely disturbing to process the death of a young person. The lost potential. The grieving parents. The devastation of close friends. The dreams lost.
Recently, it has been touted that the next pandemic after Covid-19 is a mental health pandemic. In the West, this issue has been well-documented particularly in the face of tough lockdown measures, the isolation that comes with unending lockdowns and its impact on mental health. The loss of life and livelihoods, compounded by the strained access to therapists, is a perfect storm for a mental health crisis. Governments have acknowledged this and hopefully they will act in time.
Closer home, we are yet to come to terms with mental health as a national health emergency. In fact, we are yet to decriminalise suicide. Did you know you could serve jail time for attempted suicide?
Death by suicide is still stigmatised and discussed in hushed tones. We ostracise families and children with mentally ill relatives and parents. We look down on people who attempted suicide and worse, we judge parents of children who die by suicide, concluding they must have missed a critical step in parenting.
As a country, we have simply refused to acknowledge the national crisis that is mental health. It is here, it is real, it is happening to our brothers, sisters, children, colleagues and friends, but we won’t talk about it.
Running on skeleton staff
We even have an ‘image’ of candidates for mental illness; if they are not walking around the streets talking to themselves, we don’t consider them mentally ill. Yet, a majority of those who are battling mental illness among us do not fit this societal image of a mentally ill person. They are well-dressed, with successful careers and thriving businesses, fat bank accounts, beautiful children and supportive families, but we do not want to admit they urgently need psychiatric help.
We have failed to invest in our systems and failed to prioritise mental health. Our public mental institutions are underfunded and running on skeleton staff and the private institutions are inaccessible to the common folk.
For those of us in professions where mental illness is an occupational risk such as medical practitioners, journalists and the police – to name a few – we have failed to acknowledge this crisis and to support our colleagues struggling with mental illness as a result of the events and trauma they experience in their daily work activities.
We even have a myth that seeking help for mental illness is ‘Un-African’, yet we continue to lose a critical mass of our population to death by suicide.
What will it take for us to put our pride aside and acknowledge that the mental health crisis is real? We must prioritise mental health, support mental health workers and tell our young people that it is okay not be okay. Bottom line, we must do better.
Dr Chege is the Director, Innovation Centre, at Aga Khan University; [email protected]