Breaking the silence: Mental Health Myths and Realities in Africa

By Dr. Gift Risinamhodzi

Mental health is a topic that is often shrouded in silence, stigma, and misunderstanding in many African societies. Yet, it is a universal issue that affects millions of people across the continent, regardless of their background, status, or situation. In this article, I will discuss some common myths and realities surrounding mental health in Africa and offer suggestions for promoting better mental well-being for ourselves and others.

Myth 1: Mental health problems only affect the poor and the troubled

One of the most prevalent misconceptions about mental health is that it only affects those who are poor, disadvantaged, or facing difficulties in life. This is far from the truth. Mental health problems can affect anyone, from billionaires to celebrities to the tomato vendor. Suicide, often due to poor mental health, does not discriminate by race, sex, wealth, nationality, or age. Some of the most famous examples of people who died by suicide include Vincent van Gogh and Robin Williams.

Myth 2: Mental health problems always have a specific cause or trigger

Another common myth is that mental health problems always have a clear and identifiable cause or trigger. While some people may experience mental health issues due to a traumatic event, a loss, or a stressful situation, others may develop them without any apparent reason. Sometimes, anxiety and depression can creep up from nowhere and settle in, refusing to leave. These conditions are not signs of weakness or a lack of coping skills. They are caused by a complex interplay of biological, psychological, and social factors that are not always easy to pinpoint or control.

Myth 3: Asking someone about suicide will make them more likely to do it

Many people are afraid to ask someone depressed or sad about their thoughts of suicide, thinking they might plant the idea in their head or push them over the edge. However, research shows that asking someone about suicide does not increase their risk of attempting it. It can be a helpful way to start a conversation and offer support. Many people who are suicidal want help and appreciate someone who cares enough to ask them how they are feeling. By asking someone about their suicidal thoughts, we can help them open up and seek professional help.

Myth 4: Men are less likely to suffer from mental health problems than women

It is true that more men than women die by suicide worldwide. However, this does not mean that men are less likely to suffer from mental health problems than women. It may mean that men are less likely to seek help or express their emotions due to social and cultural expectations. Women tend to use nonviolent methods such as poisoning or overdosing when attempting suicide, while men tend to use more lethal methods such as hanging or firearms. This means that women may have more chances of surviving their attempts or being noticed by others. Moreover, women may be more likely to self-harm to cope with their distress or call for attention. Self-harm is a serious indicator of poor mental health and a risk factor for suicide. Therefore, we should not ignore the signs of mental distress in both men and women.

Myth 5: Mental health problems are obvious and easy to spot.

Some people think mental health problems are always accompanied by visible symptoms such as psychosis, hallucinations, agitation, or disordered thinking. While these are signs of severe mental illness, they are not the only ones. Most people with mental health problems usually function in their daily lives. They work, marry, have children, and do everything as usual. Sometimes, the only indication may be a subtle change in their mood, behavior, or personality. For example, they may become more irritable, withdrawn, or pessimistic than before. They may lose interest in things they used to enjoy or have trouble sleeping or concentrating. These symptoms may seem minor or normal to others, but they can indicate a serious underlying problem that needs attention.

Myth 6: Mental health problems are caused by personal weakness or lack of faith.

Some people believe that mental health problems result from personal weakness or lack of faith in God. They may blame the person for not being strong or praying enough to overcome their challenges. They may also view mental health problems as a punishment for sin or a curse from evil spirits. These beliefs can prevent people from seeking help or accepting treatment for their mental health issues. They can also make them feel ashamed, guilty, or hopeless about their condition. Mental health problems are not a reflection of one’s character or spirituality. They are medical conditions that require professional care and support.

How to improve our mental health

Now that we have debunked some common myths about mental health in Africa let us look at ways to improve our mental well-being and help others struggling.

One of the most critical factors for good mental health is social connection. Having people with whom we can share our joys and sorrows, hopes and fears, and successes and failures can make a huge difference in how we cope with life’s challenges. On the other hand, social isolation can increase our risk of developing mental health problems or worsening existing ones. Therefore, we should cultivate a network of friends and family who can support us and whom we can support in return. We should also reach out to people who may be lonely or isolated and offer them our company and compassion.

Another critical factor for good mental health is self-care. This means taking care of our physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. We should eat healthily, exercise regularly, get enough sleep, and avoid substances that harm our bodies and minds. We should also engage in activities that make us happy, such as hobbies, sports, music, art, or volunteering. We should also practice gratitude, forgiveness, optimism, and mindfulness to enhance our positive emotions and reduce our negative ones. We should also seek help from a professional if we feel overwhelmed or unable to cope with our problems.

Finally, we should break the silence and stigma around mental health in our communities. We should educate ourselves and others about mental health facts and myths. We should speak up about our own experiences and listen to those of others without judgment or criticism. We should encourage people to seek help and support them in their recovery journey. We should also advocate for better policies and services that can improve the mental health of all Africans.

Mental health is not a taboo topic. It is a public health issue that affects us all. By breaking the silence, we can break the cycle of suffering and create a healthier and happier society for ourselves and future generations.