HomeLocal NewsRise in mental illnesses amid economic tailspin

Rise in mental illnesses amid economic tailspin

WHEN the video of a smiling Caroline Rusike was circulated around social media networks showing her walking stark naked on the streets of Harare while being jeered and mocked by a large crowd went viral, she was denounced and labelled as a “shameless prostitute”.

Wongai Zhangazha

In the video, which is circulating via the social networks, no one attempts to come to the young woman’s rescue or at least cover her up and, instead, many in the crowd whipped out their mobile phones to take pictures of the woman as she nonchalantly walked naked, as if it was the most natural thing to do.

Rusike was apparently not bothered by the attention; if anything, she seemed to be enjoying the attention as she smiled while the crowd jeered while gleefully taking pictures and videos.

Yet Rusike (33) of Southlea Park, Harare, was not quite in control of her mental faculties for she reportedly has mental health problems and was a patient at a mental health institution in Harare.

It later emerged that three weeks ago, she had appeared before the courts on allegations of stealing a mobile phone, forcing the magistrate to order that she be examined by two government medical doctors to ascertain her mental health status. While in custody, she reportedly stripped naked.

Rusike is just one of many people who suffer from mental health problems in the country. But as one watches the video of her walking naked in the streets with hordes jeering her, it is evident most ordinary Zimbabweans do not understand or have sympathy for those afflicted by mental health issues.

Mental illness is often misunderstood and mystified, with patients suffering a lot of stigma yet it can affect just about anyone. There is a general perception the mentally-ill are violent and most employers shut the door on those who have suffered mental illnesses for fear they may recur.

Mental patients are often ridiculed and abused by society, as in Rusike’s case, while in some instances they are viewed as social outcasts, hence their high number on the streets where they lead desperate lives.

There have been media reports of people with mental health challenges being physically abused, with some being chained or kept in isolation in inhuman conditions while others have been emotionally and sexually abused.

But the reality is that under certain conditions everyone is at risk of mental problems regardless of class, current health status, level of education or other variances.

Early this month, Zimbabwe joined the rest of the world in commemorating World Mental Health Day at the Harare Gardens under the theme “Doing nothing for others is the undoing of ourselves — Living with schizophrenia”.

Schizophrenia, according to Medical News Today, is “a mental disorder that generally appears in late adolescence or early adulthood — however, it can emerge at any time in life. It is one of many brain diseases that may include delusions, loss of personality, confusion, agitation, social withdrawal, psychosis and bizarre behaviour”.

Zimbabwe National Association of Mental Health estimates that about 130 000 people live with schizophrenia.

Last year, the country recorded an unprecedented rise in mental health incidences, with more people being diagnosed with mental illness amid worries over a shortage of suitable drugs
At a function to commemorate International Youth Day, which ran under the theme “Youth and Mental Health — Mental Health Matters”, Zimbabwe National Association for Mental Health representative Ignatius Murambidzi said one in every four people in Zimbabwe is affected by mental health problems.

“The World Health Organisation estimates that by 2020, depression might be the second leading cause of disability worldwide. There is need for budgetary support for mental health programmes and to combat stigma and discrimination towards people suffering from mental health,” Murambidzi said.

In an interview, psychiatrist and lecturer at the University of Zimbabwe department of psychiatry, Munyaradzi Madhombiro, said: “One of the many challenges is that we don’t have essential drugs.
We need more investment in mental health in both private and public hospitals. Mental health is not prioritised in our country because of traditional beliefs and it’s an attitude that needs to be changed.”

He said in some countries issues of mental health were ignored, leading to lack of investment in mental health services.

Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder (a mental condition marked by alternating periods of elation and depression) are severe mental health illnesses in Zimbabwe and worldwide, Madhombiro said.

“Anxiety disorder and panic attacks are common mental health disorders that affect about 30% of the population,” he said.

“Unemployment does indirectly affect mental health. Not having a job or money both work as stressors. This will in turn lead to alcohol or drug abuse.”

Madhombiro bemoaned the very low number of psychiatrists in the country as well as staffing levels, especially at government psychiatric institutions, Ingutsheni, Parirenyatwa and Ngomahuru in Masvingo. It is for this reason that mental patients like Rusike are not likely to get much help.

The Zimbabwe United Nations Youth Association used the commemorations to highlight that about 65% of Zimbabwean youths suffer from mental problems due to drug and substance abuse and unemployment since they have nothing to do due to high unemployment in the country estimated at over 85%.

The country’s primary national referral centre for mental patients, Ingutsheni Central Hospital in Bulawayo, is experiencing shortages in clothes, food and medical supplies due to an increase in the number of patients admitted at the centre.

This reporter’s visits to Parirenyatwa Annex Hospital, which also deals with mental problems, revealed that staff members were feeling the brunt of the increase in psychiatric patients, some of whom are violent or difficult to deal with.

According to a situational analysis by the Ministry of Health, USAid and US President Emergency Plan for Aids Relief 2012 titled Mental health and HIV Service Integration in Zimbabwe, mental illness, particularly depression, is a serious medical condition with a significant public health impact in Zimbabwe.

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