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Sunday, April 14, 2024

Mental illness = crazy?

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With Aisha Jallow

Mental illness is considered as taboo to speak about in The Gambia, but we must face the truth. It doesn’t disappear just because we stick our heads in the sand and pretend that mental illness doesn’t exist.

Suffering from mental illness doesn’t automatically mean that you are crazy.

The term crazy should not be used, but still it is a term that is common. When we experience someone acting weird, we say that this person is out of his or her mind, that he or she is acting crazy. We don’t have enough knowledge to search for what is hiding behind this strange behaviour and the easiest way is to brush it off as crazy and not getting involved.

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Sure we have people who suffer from a serious mental illness, who hear voices in their head and see enemies everywhere, but that is an illness that needs to be treated. There are many different types of mental illnesses, but the most common is depression. Depression is an illness that can be treated, but as long as we don’t have the tools for it, there is not much help to find.

A young person is considered to have his whole future in front of him. He shouldn’t have any worries, and no responsibilities for anyone but himself.

Elderly people look at the youngsters and remember the ”good old days” when they were free to come and go as they pleased. They didn’t have a worry in the world, but the thing is that they have forgotten their own struggle when they were young. This is how our minds are functioning, we tend to remember the pleasant parts of our past, and forget the rest. Perhaps our brains are protecting us that way. It is like when a woman has given birth. The delivery of a baby is extremely painful, but afterwards the pain is forgotten. Even if the woman tries to go back in her memories of the delivery, most of it is a blur. Her brain is protecting her from the worst memories so she will be able to procreate again. If not, no woman would have given birth again after the first painful process.

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The other day we could read about a 13-year-old school girl, I Jallow, who on last Monday night reportedly committed suicide at her family residence in Essau.

The Essau Upper Basic School pupil was alleged to have taken her life in her family home in Essau, North Bank Region. There are not many details about the tragedy, only that the poor girl was found hung in a cashew tree in the family compound. We should avoid speculating about the reasons for the suicide, enough rumours are already spread I’m sure, but I wish to look deeper into the reasons for a teen suicide.

Here is some information from Johnshopkins.org:

The teen years are a stressful time. They are filled with major changes. These include body changes, changes in thoughts, and changes in feelings. Strong feelings of stress, confusion, fear, and doubt may influence a teen’s problem-solving and decision-making. He or she may also feel a pressure to succeed.

For some teens, normal developmental changes can be very unsettling when combined with other events, such as:

·           Changes in their families, such as divorce or moving to a new town

·           Changes in friendships

·           Problems in school

·           Other losses

These problems may seem too hard or embarrassing to overcome. For some, suicide may seem like a solution.

Many consider suicide as a sin, that no-one else but God is allowed to end a human life, but when a person is depressed the logical thinking is gone and the thoughts of sin doesn’t matter. Depression has many depths, the deeper you fall in despair, the harder to come up again. It is not always easy to be able to notice the signs of depression. You might think that you ought to see a person crying, being apathetic or otherwise show strong emotions to understand that this person is depressed. Depression is not that obvious, a person can hide his or her emotions deep within, and even act in a way that makes you belive that he or she is happy.

The sense of responsibility for one’s family members is often what is hindering the depressed to show how he or she feels. S/he doesn’t want to upset the family, but doesn’t realize that suicide will upset the family forever. It is not easy to speak about depression, especially in a society where you avoid these kinds of subjects. When I think back on how my own society has evolved since around ten years ago, I can see that mental health has become more natural to speak about. At my school, where we teach teenagers from the ages of 13-16, we have a security team. Most of the members in that team are teachers, but we also have the school nurse and the school counselor in the team. They meet every week and speak about the pupils they find have some kind of issues, and some of these issues consider the pupil’s mental health.

Did you notice that I changed from speaking about mental illness to mental health? Mental health is just as important to speak about as physical health. It will become easier to speak about the subject if we get used to it, but we need the knowledge. This is really where we fail in The Gambia, because we only have a few psychologists in the whole country, and they are fully occupied with those who really suffer from mental illness. There is simply no-one else to go to with one’s problems, and because all kinds of mental issues are hushed down, we do our best to hide the problems. The thing with problems is that they don’t disappear just because we wish that. The problems are stuck with us until we solve them. If you have too many problems and don’t find any solution at all – perhaps then you decide to end your life.

Many of the warning signs of suicide are also symptoms of depression. They are:

·           Changes in eating and sleeping habits

·           Loss of interest in usual activities

·           Withdrawal from friends and family members

·           Acting-out behaviors and running away

·           Alcohol and drug use

·           Neglecting one’s personal appearance

·           Unnecessary risk-taking

·           Obsession with death and dying

·           More physical complaints often linked to emotional distress, such as stomachaches, headaches, and extreme tiredness (fatigue)

·           Loss of interest in school or schoolwork

·           Problems focusing

·           Feeling he or she wants to die

·           Lack of response to praise

·           Writes 1 or more suicide notes

These signs may look like other health problems.

The website I got this information from is recommending parents to make sure their teen sees his or her healthcare provider for a diagnosis. Good advice, indeed, but hard to follow in The Gambia where not much help is to be found. What we can do is to begin to speak about these matters, and also demand our decision makers to provide specialists who can treat mental health issues. Erase the taboo and start to spread the light in the lives of those who can’t see it themselves.

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