Attitudes in Africa Toward Mental Illness

Author: Lorna Likiza

As a visitor to the African continent, you may quickly realise that mentally ill persons roam the streets in the midst of normal functioning individuals and nobody seems to bat an eyelid. It may appal you this high level of insensitivity. However, in your quest to understand why Africans seem so casual about mental illness, your efforts will quickly prove futile.

I live in Nairobi, a capital city in the East African nation of Kenya and every single day, while I’m out and about running my errands or working, I must encounter at least 3 mentally ill persons reduced to a life of hopelessness on the street. The confusion and extent of their condition evident on their faces and hygiene levels.

While other working class Kenyans walk by elegantly dressed in their office or casual wear, leaving behind whiffs of designer perfumes, one or two mentally ill persons will occasionally pass by, mumbling incoherently in dirty tattered clothes and wild hair. It makes you wonder if they came into existence in this world alone seeing that Africans highly value the family unit. Don’t they have brothers and sisters to enrol them into a mental facility and make sure they are catered for?

In the years I have resided in Nairobi, I only know of one exclusively mental institution, Mathare hospital. But Kenyans will often make fun of the medical facility. A clear evidence of just how much Africans do not take mental health as serious as their Western counterparts do. It is not entirely uncommon to hear stories of how some of these mentally ill persons who live on the streets are in fact highly educated individuals.

But we give reasons as to why they are in that situation. Mostly Africans will associate mental illness with witchcraft. If not witchcraft, then drugs and alcohol. But nobody seems to want to be in a position where they can help these mentally ill persons, regardless of what situation drove them into this current state.

I recently saw a young man dirty and barefoot ramble on and on incoherently. Surprisingly, he was in the company of a smartly dressed male. I was curious to find out what was happening so I did some enquiry. The story was the same. Apparently, his companion was in fact a childhood friend. They had schooled together. Then I heard about how his family was well off and how learned he was with an Engineering Course. But there was a catch, alcohol had made him the way he was.

So I tried to question why he was not in rehab and this guy, who was giving me the information quickly scoffed at my inquiry and stated firmly that the young man in question was not an alcoholic. Africans many times do not believe in alcoholism even though the evidence of overindulging is there for everyone to see. We do not believe that alcoholism is a disease just like any other that can be treated. We do not believe that alcoholism can drive a person to become mental incapacitated.

But I was still curious. I proceeded to ask what his family – that were supposedly wealthy – were doing about it and I again received an appalling answer. His family were tired of him. And the solution according to this guy I was speaking to was to pay the young man’s fare back home to the village or the policeman’s bullet to end his life. And the way he said it was callous and too casual. However, I do not blame him.

Africa has a long way to go in changing its attitude toward mental illness. We need to stop associating mental illness with witchcraft. Our respective governments need to invest more in the mental facilities. We need more doctors studying psychiatry. Indeed many African medical students steer clear from specialising in psychiatry instead focusing on other specialisations under medicine.

The sad situation therefore continues being evident every single day with the large number of homeless mentally ill persons. Some, mothers with young children that they have no ability whatsoever to take care of in their states. These young mentally ill women are especially vulnerable to normal functioning individuals with a warped sense, who decide to take advantage sexually of them. You may be surprised to learn, at the orders of a witch-doctor with promises of getting cured of certain illnesses if they bed a mentally ill woman.

The young woman will then fall pregnant on the streets and eventually give birth to a normal child who is under the care of a mentally unstable individual. This should be a wake up call to social workers as well as Africans in a position to lend help. Often times, these little children are taken away by well-wishers and placed into orphanages. But what about the mother?

Wouldn’t it have been better if she equally got placed in a mental institution, assigned a personal therapist and got the necessary medication? Perhaps she may end up well enough to eventually be reunited with her child/children.

In my argument, I’m not implying that Africa has not done anything toward mental illness. There are facilities for it and specialists who know what they are doing. However, the idea that just about anyone can offer counseling to someone regardless of whether they are trained on it or not needs to go. We need to do away with volunteer counselors who have no clue whatsoever on what psychiatry entails. We need to place more emphasis on mental health. We need to change our deeply entrenched attitudes toward mental illness. Only then, will change be effected.

Lorna Likiza is a Kenyan blogger & business owner who writes about Societal issues, in particular those relating to Women. 

You Can Visit Lorna’s Blog Here:


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These are some interesting and important questions the world desperately needs some answers to. This video provides some provocative stoking for the fire.

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A Transcript of the video can be found here

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