This post was first published on AfricanHadithi, an online magazine about Africa by Africans on everyday African experiences. 
In a post on AfricanHadithi, I talked about how Tinsel has not being as helpful as it could have to the cause of mental health and disorders, and one of the things I said was that the show would have been a great avenue to tackle common misconceptions and myths we have about mental disorders in this part of the world.

So I want to share today on some of those myths, and tell you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. (Okay, with maybe a bit of my characteristic dry humour.) 😉

Get ready to challenge your beliefs…


1. “MENTAL illness is a white man’s thing: Africans don’t have it.”

Maybe brains are a white man’s thing, too, then.

Seriously, though, many people still believe this. You might not, but don’t think everyone agrees with you. We have to be careful here, though. This particular myth has two schools of thought within it. One school, when they say this, really mean that while they believe in the concept of “madness,” they disagree with the idea that this problem is a medical one. As far as they are concerned, psychiatry is white peoples’ attempt to ignore the reality of the spiritual and try to solve metaphysical matters with their scientific ideas. But that idea is big enough that it deserves to be addressed separately.

It’s the other school of thought I really have in mind. The members of this school are rather more sophisticated and know more about modern concepts of mental illness. They know about things like anxiety disorders and depression and schizophrenia. The only problem is, they don’t really take it all seriously. This school of thought holds that all of it is the result of white people’s over-development (assuming there really is such a thing), and emotional weakness from too much food and good living. To them, strong people, who are dealing with real life issues don’t have time to get depressed or have panic attacks.

News flash: multiple studies in every continent have confirmed that mental disorders show up at similar rates all over the world. One in every 4 or 5 people have one form or the other of mental disorder. Yes, even right here in Africa.

2. People with mental illness are dangerous and violent

This is one of the most unfair of the myths of mental disorders. It’s bad enough to have a complex medical condition (yes, mental disorders are medical conditions) that many people don’t understand. Imagine, on top of that, people now equating you with the kind of person who might bomb a school or attack people on a street with zero provocation.

Would you want to tell anyone you had a mental disorder if they were going to look at you funny?

That’s the danger of this myth: people with mental disorders find it difficult to open up about it to people because they fear (and it’s a legitimate fear) that they won’t be trusted anymore. And life is hard enough without people you care about not trusting you. But not being able to open up makes it harder to live with, because a problem shared is still a problem half-solved. But a problem you’re scared to share? That’s a problem doubly worse.

The truth is, people with mental disorders are no more violent than anyone else. That might sound hard to believe, but it’s the truth. (If you want proof that everyday people can be aggressive or violent, just go on the streets of Lagos during rush hour on any given morning.) Anyone, mentally ill or not, can be violent if they are provoked. And in cases of violence or aggressiveness among those with mental illness, there is often provocation, even though it’s not always admitted to.

One other side to this myth: it almost puts those with a mental disorder but who aren’t aggressive or violent at a disadvantage, because then they’re less likely to be seen as mentally ill. Isn’t that tragic?

3. Mental illness is caused by demons or evil spirits, and the solution is deliverance/exorcism

This myth, though; yes, yes, it is a myth! And before you crucify me, I am a person of faith myself. And yet I insist that this is a myth. Addressing it in full will require a whole post (maybe two), but suffice to say for now that mental disorders are just that: mental disorders. They’re disorders of the mind/brain.

Can they be caused by evil spirits? Perhaps. I won’t say they can’t, but to be honest, I haven’t ever encountered one such case. Are they always caused by evil spirits? I can categorically say, “No.” And that’s the myth right there. But I will go one step farther: my conviction is that whether or not you believe in evil spirits as a cause of mental disorders, the physical aspect is real enough that we would do well to get on with addressing that as best as modern medical science enables us to. (If you thought someone was poor because spirits were chasing them, wouldn’t you at least offer some money? Exactly.)

In case you’re still doubting: I’ve never yet seen a mental disorder that didn’t respond to treatment. Would that happen if it was all “spiritual”? Doesn’t that at least make you consider that mental disorders have a physical component that’s worth addressing?

But like I said, this one needs more space to do justice to it.

(Another related myth to this one: that mental disorders result from curses, or that they are punishment for some great evil. That one is worse because it means the person doesn’t get the sympathy and support other people with health conditions get, since they must have brought it on themselves. Personally I think it is this myth itself that is a curse and a great evil.)

4. “There’s no one with mental illness in my family…”

I’m really sorry to burst this particular bubble, but it’s a myth, too. I mean, think about it: how can I say with confidence that there’s no one with mental illness in my family? Do I know everyone in my family? I mean, come on: you’ve probably met some second or third cousin you never knew about within the past year! How do you know what they have or don’t have? How do you know there isn’t a fourth cousin somewhere with a mental disorder?

For that matter, how are you sure a relative you know right now doesn’t have a mental disorder? What, you think you’d know for sure? Okay, let me ask you another question then: if you or a close family member were to have a mental disorder, would you share the news at the next family meeting? No? So why would you assume anyone else would tell you? Exactly.

This particular statement is, I believe, a statement of faith. The people saying it may mean it as fact, but it’s not the truth: it’s what they want to be the truth. But truth doesn’t become true by your wanting it to be, does it? The best anyone can truly say is, “I’m not aware of any one in my family with mental disorders.”

There, that’s better. That’s more honest.

(That’s how we psychiatrists put it, by the way: when we’re reporting on the presence or absence of family history of mental disorders, instead of an overconfident statement of “no family history,” we say, “no known family history.” A little “known” makes a big difference, doesn’t it?)

5. People with mental illness never really get better

This one is sad. Personally, I find it the most disheartening. You see why, don’t you? If I don’t expect much from you, what are the chances I will try hard for you? And that’s exactly the fate of many people with mental disorders: they don’t get the help and support they need because those who care about them don’t think anything can really make a difference.

And it’s simply not true. There’s a lot that can be done to help people with mental disorders to live full, rich lives. A diagnosis of any mental disorder is not a death sentence, nor is it a pronouncement of doom. It’s just that: a diagnosis. And whatever diagnosis it is, there are several treatment options. And the treatments work. So there’s just no reason for anyone to remain in the grip of untreated illness.

Of course, part of why this myth persists is that the medications and other treatments for mental illness often have to be taken for long periods of time. Another reason is the belief that mental illness never really goes away. (The Yorubas, the ethnic group I identify with, say this as, “Wèrè ò kí n tán lára”—which loosely translates to, “Madness is never really exhausted in the person.”) And one sad way this plays out is people around the person never giving them a chance to express themselves anymore. The slightest sign of emotion, and the next thing they hear is, “Are you starting again?” Imagine for yourself how that must hurt.

But if you ask me, all that kind of thinking is the kind that sees a glass as half empty. Why not rather focus on the fact that someone who was unable to function as they usually would now can? That someone who would have been given up on now has a solid shot at living the life they want?So what if they require some ongoing treatment? Does that mean they aren’t better? Or does it just really mean we secretly don’t believe that people with mental disorders are people just like us?

Because to be honest, they are.

In the end, we are all human, and being ill, physically or mentally, is part of the human experience. But even more definitive than that is the ability to rise above any challenge. Let’s rise above the myths, and let’s help those with mental illness to rise above it. We can do this.

And the first step is to know the truth. Knowledge is still power, after all.

What other ideas have you been told about mental illness that you have found out aren’t entirely correct? Share them in the comments!

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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