What you need to know:
- For most people, the coronavirus pandemic has made what was already very difficult life more unbearable.
- In Africa generally, we are not good at recognising people who are struggling with mental illness.
This week, a report out of South Africa said that the number of suicides in just one of its provinces, Gauteng, increased by a staggering 90 per cent between 2019 and 2020. The suicides shot up from 695 cases in 2019 to 1,325 in 2020.
On World Suicide Prevention Day, which is marked in September, Kenya, too, reported a spike in suicides, though not at South African levels. We learnt that more than 500 people took their lives in the first six months of this year. The figure for those six months was more than all the suicides reported in 2020.
South African and Kenyan health officials, however, agree on the causes: Mental distress and illness, loss of income during the Covid-19 pandemic, general financial difficulties, death of family members, domestic violence and loneliness, to name a few.
This is an African and global reality.
For most people, the coronavirus pandemic has made what was already very difficult life more unbearable. Some of this pain seems like something we can’t help with, coming as it does from deep structural fissures.
We read those stories in Japan of (especially elderly) people who are so lonely they will go and steal a bicycle or something, then show up at the police station and report themselves so that they can be arrested.
They view prison as better than their comfortable apartments because they can at least play card games with other inmates and have someone to sit and talk with at lunch or dinner.
Crying for help
In the United States, there are people who have some money but become Uber drivers because, that way, they get to meet interesting riders and have conservations with them.
In our neighbourhoods, we live in fences; so, a child can no longer play with the kid next door. The best they can do is cut a hole in the fence — that is, if the dogs permit it. Even when we live in apartments, we are cloistered, leaving at dawn to beat the traffic and returning late, weary and angry, having again endured hell in traffic and at the office.
And when Covid came, well, we were at home but behind masks and staying away from neighbours, sometimes even people in the same household, as if they were the plague itself.
To compound matters, in Africa generally, we are not good at recognising people who are struggling with mental illness and in precarious situations or danger.
“Every marketplace has its own mad man”, so goes a popular African proverb. These “mad” people are crying for help but they are seen as a normal fixture. It is a commonly used proverb and you are considered learned and aware of the culture when you throw it out there. The mad man, or woman, is a regular figure in comedy and theatre and an object of mirth.
Additionally, as has been widely chronicled, we now have social media; with scantily dressed women showing booty and (false) breasts you don’t have in photoshopped photographs; men flashing false abs or doing mind-boggling routines in the gymnasium when you can barely get off the couch.
Issues of mental distress
And then they are out there, holidaying at some fancy place and posing against a stranger’s Ferrari. Sometimes, people feel worthless because nobody is retweeting their tweets or liking their Instagram photographs. They think God and life have dealt an extremely dirty hand and it’s time to check out.
There is increasing awareness of issues of mental distress, and there are rudimentary structures people can reach out to, but we are just at the starting line. A woman who runs to a police station to report rape is as likely to be raped again by a cop as to get the criminal who raped her arrested.
At the governmental level, it is even worse. Early this year, I listened to a young Kenyan who works in mental health unpack the national health budget, to show how much is specifically allocated to mental health. If my memory serves me well, it was less than 0.1 per cent.
Talking to experts, they say dealing with these crises is extremely difficult in Africa.
One of them said, “You know, even seeing flowers or greenery is good for our mental health, but the urban concrete jungle we live in is only growing.”
He added: “You know, in the past, our people would find peace from stories and folk tales. Today, there is even no free story anymore.”
We shouldn’t underestimate how hard the work will be, yes, but still, it can’t be an impossible task.
Mr Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer and curator of the Wall of Great Africans. @cobbo3