Mental health is one of those health topics that I wish were an everyday issue of discussion gaining support from the pulpits and newsrooms. Perhaps because I have seen far too many issues around me not just at a personal level but also out there in the public. What is not lost on me as a young man is just how often I read or hear  You shouldn’t have gone that far,” It is a cautionary tale. What if you had offered your support?

Almost everyone says this when expressing their sympathies posthumously. Sometimes I almost want to scream ‘stop it now. You should have said it when they were alive’. But I haven’t done that. I will do it with my words. 

In this era when the world has become a global village as Marshall McLuhan postulated, many people assume that whatever they see posted online about or by their friends is actually an accurate reflection of the latter’s real lives: lavish, flawless and overly successful. Social media or the e-world has become a haven for untold dishonesty or faking, and thus, has made it really hard to tell when everything is fine or when something is amiss.

It is easy and also likely that someone puts up a post about their new jobs, but very difficult to post about job loss as such is seen as a massive failure.

It is likely that one posts photos of their family on a holiday in Diani or Watamu or Zanzibar when their relationships are just but doing heavenly well, but not when divorce strikes.

It is also likely that one flaunts their healthy and fit, shapely bodies online such that can qualify for modeling, but not while illness has struck.

In short, it is natural that people do not like creating unnecessary attention that would bring about the attraction of sympathy or discussions around their lives- which of course is somehow easy to hide from social media, the e-world.

But what happens when the physical world that you cannot detach yourself from becomes increasingly indifferent when they become aware of your challenges? Afya Watch spoke to a number of people who have suffered from stigma and these were their experiences:

 

Jefferson Mwaura* , 30

“I graduated from Kenyatta University six years ago and immediately secured a job with a local advertising company,” he tells me. “A year down. It was a time of ‘giving back to myself’ as we used to say. Throwing parties and get together meetings with friends every so often.

Life had started to be clear and fun until one morning when I received an email from my HR, expressing regrets and asking me not to turn up for work that day. Truth was, I had been retrenched without prior notice.

Darkness struck me and I was unable to revert the email or speak to anyone about it for the following three days. I later learned that the company had been merged with an international company that brought expatriates to work for them. I was jobless and worried.”

“So what did joblessness mean to you? You were young, of course, and trying out in life” I suggested.

“That is true, I was young. However, everyone has what they hope for in life and I had started off at a high note. When the retrenchment happened, it was time for a thousand lessons that you will never learn unless you’re in deep problems: you learn who your true friends are, who minds about your welfare and who cares whether you sleep hungry or outside in the cold night. The support you get or do not get is what decides your path. 

When a friend asked on our WhatsApp group whether I was attending the party on that coming weekend, I said no. Another friend suggested, on the same forum, that I had no job so they shouldn’t wait or count on me. They struck a conversation about me that tore my soul in pieces. Until today, I don’t understand why they thought about counting me out on the basis of lack of a job.

It so happens that they had jobs themselves. We split and my friendship with them eroded. After some time, I left the WhatsApp group when their not-so-kind words took a toll on me. Their words made me feel inadequate. I did until my parents noticed my withdrawal. I visited a counselor and was rescued. I found out that the stigma of being secluded and the talk from my friends was leading me to a path towards depression. I’m glad it never went that far.”

Joy Wakiini, 23

“It was my first marriage at 20. It wasn’t planned for. When I completed my form four, my parents enrolled me for a short course in accountancy as I waited to join the university. Soon after, we became friends with one of the tutors, who apparently had completed his undergraduate and had since enrolled for his master’s degree,” she smiles.

“Maybe that is what flattered me, although so many things stood unclear for me and I was very innocent. I fell for him and was soon expectant. My first thought was to escape and never come back home, but where would I go to? My mother learned about my ballooning tummy and asked me whether there was something,” she laughs. “I said yes and she gave me the talk of a lifetime, as a way of showing that I had failed her. Things were not the same again for my mother and me.

My father would blame her for everything that went amiss at home or at work where she was overseeing our family business. It was traumatizing for me. I couldn’t be in the sitting room at the same time with father and I couldn’t drive in our car anymore after that, until much, much later. 

I was hurt the most because even the man responsible texted me, trying to incriminate me. It was rough for me that I was also taken to a psychiatrist and later enrolled for counseling sessions. I’m glad that my mother, the only woman I envy and would like to be even in the next life, walked with me, offered support and shared the stigma and the mouth lashing from father. Now I laugh off my challenges because I was able to come out a winner.

 

Lucy, 26. A Cosmetician

“I have not always been here,” she says of her cosmetic business. “This was an escape from the village talk that was taking a toll on me. I come from a place where marriage is highly regarded and single motherhood is taken as a failure on the part of the woman.

I was married at 21 by a man, who, unknown to me, had another wife. It is funny that people knew about my husband’s other marriage but no one thought it wise to tell me.   Instead, I began hearing rumours that I had lacked a young man to marry me, and that is why I chose to be married as a second wife.

I didn’t understand that, until one time I asked my husband to clear the air. Then, I was pregnant with our firstborn daughter. Instead of receiving a gentle response and support, he started fighting me over very meaningless things. He could go and not come back on numerous weekends then reappear on Monday after work, claiming to be tired.

I told my parents about it and decided to quit my marriage. It was a painful decision which, surprisingly, he said, he had for long wanted me to make. Well, after leaving, I went home and the days that followed weren’t any fun. People talked about my broken marriage like their daily business. I had to leave but still, it wasn’t easy. My parents talked to me so much and helped me make sense of life. They set up this business for me and paid for my university fees. I am forever grateful and happy in my second marriage.

So what should be done to help victims of stigma?

These are examples of life traumas that can easily take a toll if one doesn’t have the right support systems. While building resilience when it comes to mental health is always touted, the personal relationships that one has can come in handy in lives challenges. However, the stigma that comes with some of these challenges is what keeps people cushioned in their little caves. Not wise at all. We can do better.

First, supporting stable family life, social cohesion and human development where people mind about each other’s welfare is key. A cohesive family ensures that people do not suffer in silence, rather, one can comfortably and confidently open up in the event there are challenges they are undergoing.

Secondly, consistently assessing and monitoring the mental health of people in communities, including the highly vulnerable populations such as children, women and the elderly is key in facilitating the reduction of stigma cases.

Finally, it is really helpful when access to appropriate and cost-effective services, including mental health promotion and prevention services is availed to everyone.

This not only ensures that the affected people receive appropriate assistance but also moral support.

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