I recently attended the 5th Global Mental Health Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, which looked at mental health issues on a global scale. Many similarities across continents were noted, such as; the lack of awareness around mental health issues, the stigma that continues to surround mental illness, the increase of mental health concerns amongst the youth and the lack of resources.
It was truly an awe inspiring event, as professionals from various disciplines came together, echoing the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) slogan: “there is not health without mental health”. The presentation given by Crick Lund (Professor and Director at the Alan J Fisher Centre for Public Health, University of Cape Town) stands out for me in particular, as he highlighted the importance of including the role of persons with lived experience in shaping and informing mental health research, to in turn inform policy and strengthen mental health systems. To me this spoke not only to the formulation of policy but also to informing interventions and practices, as these voices are often lost, forgotten or dismissed. This rings true in the #LifeEsidimeniTragedy, with the deaths of mental health patients, who had no say in where they were going to be moved and whose family members could not advocate for them. What happened to human rights? What’s the purpose of having policies such as the Mental Health Policy if we fail to refer to it when implementing? As stated by Dr Lochandra Naidoo (President of the South African Federation for Mental Health), ‘Mental health is the Cinderella of health care’. The forgotten child? The imaginary friend? If not seen, does not matter and if they don’t matter, we can do what we want with them?
This de-valuing of individuals that have a mental illness can be explored in relation to how we have been socialized into understanding mentally ill individuals and mental illness as a whole. As my mother often would say to me, to understand the present you have to go back to the beginning. Pre 16th Century, mental illness was attributed to the supernatural, witchcraft and insanity simply meant possession by the devil. By the 16th Century, individuals with psychological disorders were seen as dangerous and needed to be locked away to protect society. By the 17th Century, the mentally ill could participate with society but still needed to be understood as ‘mad’. With the term ‘lunatics’ becoming more common in reference to the mentally ill, who were also considered weak, in the 18th Century. Thus, from this brief history, we can see how we may have been socialized to perceiving the mentally ill as less and mental illness as something that makes one incapable of participating in society and not the norm. If you have a mental illness, there must be something horribly wrong with you. By the 19th and 20th Century things started to change, as punitive treatments were abolished, an investment was made in understanding mental health as a health issue, which led to research being done to understand the causes of mental illness and in turn the establishment of more appropriate treatments and most importantly protecting the human rights of the mentally ill was emphasized.
So we have made progress over the years. Yet a stigma around mental illness still exist in the fabric of our societies. More needs to be done clearly, but what does this more look like? Dr Lochandra Naidoo calls for the creation of a ‘society in which mental health receives the attention it deserves’. I fully agree with this statement and to be honest I was shocked that mental health was not getting the attention it deserves. But as I reflected on this, I came to the realization that as a mental health practitioner, I engage with mental health issues on a daily basis, moreover, I studied it for 7 years, so I got a good base when it comes to understanding it in the context of myself, the family, community and broader society I live in. But, not everyone has this background. And even though in South Africa, we have been advocating, raising awareness and campaigning about mental health and illness, there’s a gap. And I say there’s a gap because I do believe that our government is a microcosm of the broader society. And the treatment by the government of mentally ill individuals in the Life Esidimeni tragedy speaks to an overall lack of understanding of mental health and mental health care. A disregard for the one of the most vulnerable groups in our society. We have come a long way, but clearly, still have a long way to go.
I invite you to share your thoughts on the way forward, how do we create a society in which mental health receives the attention it needs?
Written by: Sumaiya Mohamed