Mental health self-help groups needed

By Pat Watson Wednesday July 16 2014 in Opinion
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There are some 200 million people on the African continent living with mental illness, but health budgets, which are already relatively small in many African countries, allocate less than one per cent for this area of health treatment. In Nigeria, which has 150 psychiatrists and 34 neurosurgeons, some 64 million are affected by mental illness. That’s one psychiatrist for every 43,000 persons, and that is not to say even half of that number is seeking or getting treatment.


There is a real hunger here, within the African Canadian population, to begin to have more open discussion about what we term mental illness. The matter is urgent.


One in five people in this country will at some point experience some aspect of mental illness. Within the African Canadian population, that figure would be higher and while depression is higher among women, it remains even higher among Black men, particularly older Black men. However, the level of treatment response is not far behind the statistics that bear out in underserved continental African populations.


Let’s look at an analogy. Just about everyone eventually catches a cold, but we are not stigmatized for it. It is very common and while no one wants to catch a cold – it is uncomfortable, and can cost when losing time from work – people are not in denial when they have it. Then, too, in some cultures it is considered a sign of personal sacrifice to ‘keep calm and carry on’. People are admired in some places for getting up and going to work while carrying a contagious bug. Hence the appearance of sneeze masks in some workplaces abroad.


A cold is not a mind disorder, nonetheless, the same behaviour obtains as people try to carry on with it, too often without acknowledging it and without treatment. That is because a major barrier to addressing mental health among individuals experiencing it is the one-two punch of stigmatization and denial.


The prime example in the news media these days is Rob Ford. It has been obvious to just about everyone that this man is living with all the symptoms of an addiction. That is, obvious to everyone but the man himself. That is not because Ford was lying, but because the effect of denial is a fundamental aspect of a chronic, untreated mental condition. Observers are easily aware of it, but the person with the condition will have a harder time of it, even if he suspects that may be the case. So, any attempts to get an individual to accept he is experiencing a mental disorder or mood disorder may be met with violent rejection. Again, we can look at Ford’s angry reactions when confronted by many reporters about his substance abuse. It would seem incredible to the rest of us that with so much evidence staring him in the face, he would continue for so long to deny what was clear to just about everyone else; that’s typical of many individuals experiencing a mental health condition.


The example of Ford aside, the more important question for us, as a community, is how do we deal with this health concern in our midst? Medicalizing it has had mixed results as treatment with medication can be just as disorienting as the condition, whether the diagnosis is depression, bi-polar affective disorder, schizophrenia or any mood disorder.


Within the self-help group of communities, various types of 12-step programs have some success for people abusing chemicals or behaviours in response to their depression. People with similar conditions support each other through mutual understanding and can help each other by sharing coping skills they develop among themselves, given that their shared goal is to develop mental wellbeing.


It seems to me that this kind of grassroots cooperation can work for us as well. After all, the call for unity is always there among us. Certainly, this is one area, as a beleaguered community, where uniting would prove to have great benefit. This, too, is where Black churches can help, by providing meeting spaces for such self-help groups.


A note on the World Cup wrap up…


So this time it is the German team that gets to lay hands on the golden trophy. South Americans missed the chance to have their big party. Well, in four years they can try again, in Russia.


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