I’m not crazy, lunatic or mad. I’m just like you

The month of October is almost synonymous with breast cancer awareness. But the spot light doesn’t shine only on breast cancer. Mental health, another worrying medical condition is given prominence during the month of October.

This year more than ever, I felt there was the need to increase the level of awareness aboutmental health in a bid to challenge the status quo especially in our part of the world. We all agree that our lack of understanding of the illness and itscomplexities has often led to life threatening attacks, stigma, discrimination and stereotypes that havealienated persons with mental health problems.

It is an undeniable fact that mental health is a global concern, but as the world makes progress, no matter how slowly, the story in our part of the world is that of minimal progress.

We all experience physical health problems at some point in our lives. This may be caused by various factors but it has not caused us to be stigmatized when seeking treatment. The same however cannot be said of mental health. Our physical and mental health status change throughout our lives and like our bodies, our mind can become unwell. Research has shown that mental health problems worldwide might actually be more common than we may think and the current prevalence in Ghana attests to this fact.

I have been saddened by frequent media captions – especially in the Ghanaian media – that tend to label people going through mental health challenges or living with mental illness as “mad, insane, lunatic or crazy”. If the media that we rely on for information and education on such issues uses such demeaning and unacceptable language for such individuals, then you can imagine the perception the public will form about these people.

This label is not just unacceptable, it is stereotypical, demeaning, promotes exclusion and stigma which results in ostracizing individuals going through such challenging times from society.

Living with and/or managing long term a physical health problem is challenging, how much more dealing with mental health? Just imagine the struggle people with mental health conditions have to endure just to keep their condition secret and avoiding treatment simply because of the shame, stigma and discrimination they will suffer at the hands of family and friends. Can the same be said of someone who is diagnosed with asthma, high blood pressure or diabetes – conditions which affect our physical health in the long term.

People living with mental health problems have the same rights as any other individual living with any illness. They have the right to life, respect and dignity to live a fulfilled life. My concern here however, is the continues use of these derogatory terms, mad, lunatic etc in articles (news publications) to describe persons with mental health challenges as if they are less human than we are.

The following news articles in particularly caught my attention and motivated me to write this piece: “Goats, mad men replace teachers in classroom”. “Madman dancing Azonto”. “Madmen, cattle, invade school”. “Accra psych hospital storms Accra to arrest madmen”. “Madmen terrorize people at Nkrumah circle”. “Madman analyses dumsor”. “Lunatic murders baby and dumbs body”. “Ghana rapper goes mad” just to mention a few.

The negative impact of such labels I believe has resulted in the generally low public interest in the mental health profession. This has also forced many with mental health challenges to shy away from seeking treatment until they are in crises.

The impact of stigma as a result of misinformation and superstition has had a significantly negative effect on efforts to attract professionals into the field of mental health. I will not blame society so much for such unfortunate attitude towards people with this kind of disability, because many people do not even understand the condition. I would admit I was also a culprit until I got a better understanding of what mental illness was really about through education and professional experience. This has changed my perception and attitude towards such individuals.

It is not too late for us all to push for a change in attitude towards people with mental health problems. This we can achieve by providing training to professionals like law enforcement officers and personnel of the security agencies on appropriate ways of interactingwith or handling such individuals. The media also has to learn from best practices in other parts of the world as far as reporting on this condition is concerned. This is because it has a significant role to play if the progress we desire to see, especially as a country, in dealing with mental health is to be realized. There should also be deliberate policies that will ensure the inclusion and integration of persons with mental disability into main stream society.

People with mental health illness are not labels or statistics.They are your family members, friends and neighbors. In fact you could possibly develop the condition too. The media as well as health care professionals need to be trained to be abreast with the latest trends in treating and managing mental health conditions. Until there are significant changes regarding the above issues, you will hear from me again.

I strongly believe that we can change society’s attitude towards the condition if the health ministry, government agencies, and other stake holders such as non-governmental agencies become actively engaged in coordinated educational campaigns using tools like drama skits, presentations in schools, religious institutions and rural community engagements.

There should be policy direction that enables community integration and provides opportunities – such as employment – for people recovering from or living with mental illness. We always need to remember that any of us could be diagnosed with any mental health condition and we will need the support and understanding of others. This we can only achieve if we start treating such individuals with respect and dignity in our daily interactions with them. They need our understanding and support. They are not labels or a statistic, they are individuals like you and I.

By Eric Parbie (RICKY): President (Beautiful Mind and Wellness Inc)


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