3 unique things about depression in Africans

I’ve been talking about depression for awhile now (see here, here and here), and I’m all set to move on to another subject. Not because there isn’t more to be said, because there definitely is. (I mean, I haven’t even said anything yet about treatment options available for someone with depressive disorder, for instance!) I think I’ll just take a couple more aspects of depression, though, and then move on to another aspect of mental health and illness. But have no fear, I’ll come back to this issue of depression, for sure.

So today I want to talk about some unique aspects to how depression plays out for Nigerians (who I know) and Africans in general—who I hear are very much like Nigerians! (Just kidding! Seriously, though, there are a bunch of similarities between Africans, Asians and even South Americans, when it comes to not just mental illness, but health in general; things that make us quite different from Caucasians. But that’s a whole other story. I might get to it someday soon, if you’re interested enough.) 🙂

Okay so what are 3 ways depression is sort of different with us?

  1. We typically don’t talk about “I’m depressed.” Many people with depression may not consider themselves depressed: some don’t even have low mood. Which, as it turns out, doesn’t mean depression isn’t there. (This isn’t just Africans, either; apparently, black Americans too are pretty similar, as you can see from this quote from a post on PsychCentral blog): “In many ways, I do think that there is a greater stigma among African American culture than among white cultures. I live in southern California, and many white people will freely reference “seeing a therapist” in normal conversation. Black people don’t do that. Seeing a therapist is generally seen as a sign of weakness or a lack of faith.”
  2. We don’t really have a word for “depression” in most African languages. We are basically stuck with words that mean things like, “tiredness of the heart,” “thinking too much,” and so on. This is still related to Reason #1. Our languages, it seems, don’t readily lend themselves to expressing the complexity of emotion. (That’s something I’d definitely like to explore sometime.)
  3. These physical symptoms aren’t just “textbook” ones like sleep and fatigue and poor appetite, they’re sometimes really weird stuff. Stuff like sensations of internal heat, or a feeling of something crawling around the body. Some people feel heaviness in their head or pins-and-needles in their hands and feet (Yorubas call that kpaja-kpaja). Problem is most people with these kinds of symptoms think they maybe have malaria (or “typhoid”!); depression is the last thing on their minds. (There are other mental illnesses with these kinds of symptoms, like anxiety disorders, plus you can even have them in physical conditions too, so it’s not like having them means depression per se.)
  4. Bonus point: The “confessing witch” phenomenon. A little background, first. One of the commoner symptoms of depression is guilt. I’ve seen people begging their family (and sometimes even complete strangers) to forgive them, when they can’t even say what exactly they want to be forgiven for; that’s how strong guilt can be. And when it’s intense enough, you could throw just about any accusation at the person, and they’d latch onto it faster than a terrorist organisation claiming a bombing. So picture an old woman in a village—let’s say she’s widowed—and she happens to be depressed, so she probably keeps to herself a lot. Of course, everyone thinks she’s a little weird, and soon enough, the village gossip mill goes to work and people are soon speculating that maybe she killed her husband. One day someone takes it seriously, and soon convinces everyone else to summon her and drag out the truth. This woman already strongly feelings of guilt, mind you. It doesn’t take rocket science to expect her to “confess” to anything they accuse her of. The villagers are delighted! So it was she who killed their son of the soil (and maybe the last chief, and whoever else she “confesses” to “killing”)! They stone her to death…And there goes another depressed old lady.

Tell me: what do you make of that? Do you agree or disagree with, or have questions about any of these points? Let me know in the comments below!

Published by Doc Ayomide

I’m a medical doctor with specialty training in psychiatry, and I love thinking and writing about what it means to be human.

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  1. Truly an eye opener because knowledge is power. I wish many Nigerians will have access to this truth and stop killing innocent women as a result of this “confessing thing” God have mercy.

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