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AfricaLive Tuesday, 5 November, 2002, 15:56 GMT
Being mentally aware
Dr Frank Njenga
Dr Njenga wants to banish misconceptions about mental illness

One in five people the world over suffer from mental illness in one form or another.

In Africa, we have major risk factors for mental disorder - for example displacement, political instability, malnutrition, Aids, unemployment.

So together with all the other risk factors that everyone has worldwide, we have lots of special ones.

Yet until recently, nobody thought that Africans had anything to discuss at the mental health level. We now realise this is completely untrue.

There is a misconception that it is impossible to recognise different types of mental disorders - that it is all just guessing. This is completely untrue.

It is possible for a properly trained individual to actually recognise the different types of mental disorders.

Just like you can prevent your teeth decaying by brushing them morning and evening, there are some very interesting mental exercises you can do that will make it less likely for you to suffer from these conditions.

Another misconception is that you can't treat mental disorders. Again, manifestly untrue.

Most of the disorders are treatable, and lots of people can now get better, get back to work and lead perfectly normal lives.

Demons or dementia?

At the African level, there are misconceptions with regard to causation - so-and-so was bewitched, or something was put under his bed, or he didn't slaughter at the right time.

This is actually a question of linguistics - what one person would call demons may also be a form of deep depression.

Demons and spirits are a way of understanding distress.

Interestingly, those psychiatrists who have Western-style training are only able to handle a small number of these conditions.

So what we have deliberately and consciously done is to develop partnerships - firstly with traditional healers.

They are the ones who come face to face with the huge majority of people who suffer from mental disorder.

And we try to get them to understand that there are some conditions they treat better than we do, and some conditions we treat better than they do.

We do know as psychiatrists that those with a spiritual existence get better quicker than those without.


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