Quite often mental health issues are ignored by societies, especially in African societies where generally such issues are easily dismissed as manifestations of an evil spirit or an act of witchcraft. In the several incidents that I witnessed in which one suffered a mental breakdown and started acting hysterically, the common sentiments were that he or she has been ‘bewitched’. I remember one particular incident where a man in Gweru, while conducting his normal business of repairing shoes at a street corner, just went berserk without a warning and started shouting obscenities to passersby.
I witnessed a crowd of people who had gathered around the cobbler in utter amazement as to his unusual behaviour. I decided to go and observe the unfolding scene from a close range and when I got to where the small crowd was, I could tell that many were finding it difficult to fathom that this man, whom they probably knew from passing him in the street or even buying his services, had all of a sudden gone ‘mad’. I asked one elderly man who was part of the small crowd what had transpired for the cobbler to threaten violence at passersby and shout profanities as well as have hallucinations.
The elderly man`s response was not a far cry from what I had already gathered. “This guy, I know him from here. He was fine all this time but all of a sudden became like this and I am convinced this is either witchcraft or he took some drugs,” the elderly man responded. I overhead one youthful man say, “…these days people take a lot of drugs and also rob people of their belongings then get bewitched.” Clearly, the majority of the people were convinced that the cobbler had either taken a harmful illegal substance or had been ‘bewitched’ through some dark spell. I began wondering if anyone comprehended that there could be some other explanations for the cobbler`s behaviour, for example just a mental breakdown due to mental stress or depression.
As I intimated above, many members of African society do not pay adequate attention to mental health issues. It is not surprising therefore that seeking mental health services remains slow because of the dominant perceptions that mental breakdowns are driven by witchcraft, or in most cases are simply ignored. While women have generally better health-seeking behaviour compared to men, in men mental health issues are frequently ignored and one of the times they come to light is when a man commits suicide.
More to follow…..