I used to think mental illness is self-inflicted and people suffering from it should be ashamed. I also never understood why anyone suffering from any form of mental health illness just didn’t take themselves out of that situation. However, after visiting Mathare Mental Institution in Nairobi alongside my psychology class back in November 2017, my mentality changed forever. I can honestly say this has been the most enlightening experience of my life to date.
Through this opportunity, I was able to interact with a wide range of individuals from all walks of life; most of them were just like me or my peers – but they were all fighting a different battle with their own minds, be it substance abuse, bipolar depression or schizophrenia. I was also fortunate enough to speak to a few patients that had committed atrocious crimes due to an episodic or persistent mental disease at the time of the criminal act. Whilst having these conversations, two things came to mind. Firstly, most people suffering from mental illness just need a friendly face to talk to and secondly, that could easily be me in the same exact situation. When I came to the second realisation, the stigma I had previously associated with mental health illness started to fade away and this is when my attitude also changed significantly. I started thinking about how I would like to be treated if I found myself in a similar situation.
Looking around the mental health hospital, I noticed that the conditions that these patients were subjected to were more like a prison. On the bus ride back to school from the hospital, I distinctly remember how drained my classmates and I were from spending only a few hours at Mathare; and I can only extend my sympathy towards the patients who have to endure being treated less than, at the very place they go to seek sanctuary.
Since the trip, I have made a conscious effort to continuously educate myself on mental health. I live next to a rehabilitation centre in Kampala, Uganda called Butabika Hospital which I try to visit every time I am back in the country from university and it has helped me understand that mental illness aside, these patients are incredible individuals with so many beautiful stories to tell and so much to offer.
I have a vision to one day introduce a maximum unit ward in Uganda to cater to criminals suffering from mental illness. I hope that through this initiative, I am able to slowly change the narrative and stigma linked to mental health especially amongst my African brothers and sisters.
Namata openly explores her journey with mental health and how much she learned about it, looking from the outside in. Mental Health is a sensitive topic, often overlooked in the black / African community. Namata offers us an insight into her experience.