Mental illness is an increasingly apparent first-world problem. At one time it was ignored or not recognised Now, it is taken seriously, so much so that there exists dispute around the overmedication of the illness. Despite the advances that have been made – in treatment, in the lessening of societal stigma and in respect for such illnesses – further research and changes are still acutely needed. One only has to look at the increasing visibility of sports’ stars suffering from mental illnesses, the experiences of military personnel on returning home from war, or even closer to home to see this.
Undoubtedly though, the treatment of mental illness in first-world countries, despite these issues, is professional, well-thought out, and respectful. Sadly, this is far from the case in many third world countries where problems ranging from starvation to war injuries, from disease to the building of the simplest infrastructure, are prioritized by both citizens and aid agencies alike. Paradoxically, it is in these war-ravaged and decimated countries, where aid is prioritized elsewhere, that mental illness is often most highly prevalent as a result of exposure to horrific events.
Somalia is one such country. The country has been torn apart by wars and still suffers the effects today. What is more, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 1 in 3 people in Somalia suffer from mental illness, whilst its health sector was destroyed almost 2 decades ago by civil war. As a consequence, many people who suffer mental illness are not only left unaided, but are left at the mercy of traditional medicine and beliefs that associate mental illness with bad spirits. The “treatments” reported include chaining the mentally ill to beds or trees, with WHO reporting that this occurs in the majority of cases, and a guesstimate figure being put at 170,000 people who have endured this fate. Other treatments include locking the sick person in a room with a hyena as, according to traditional Somalian beliefs, hyenas can see bad spirits and so its presence forces the spirit to leave. This, unsurprisingly, often causes further trauma or even physical injury and death.
Psychiatric nurse Abdirahaman Ali Awale, also know as Dr. Habeeb, has been working tirelessly and selflessly for the past 8 years to help Somalians with mental illnesses. It is his belief that, in reality, no one from Somalia’s southern and central areas has good mental health. He has been witness to many incidents of chaining and says that he is physically reduced to tears multiple times a day, because of both what he sees and the indifference to the plight of these people from political decision-makers. Habeeb set up his first mental health clinic in 2005 and has thus far treated over 15,000 people for conditions ranging from depression to post-traumatic stress disorder. He is also using radio to try to educate people and dispel the myths and stigma surrounding mental illness.
Maybe than can serve as a reminder to all of us to maintain respect, awareness and compassion for mental illness wherever it occurs in our world.