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MENTAL Health Users Network of Zambia executive director Sylvester Katontoka.

Living with mental illness

“IT IS not easy to live with a mental illness. One has to endure a lot of prejudices and unfair treatment.

At times, it almost seems as if people are waiting for you to make a mistake so that they can cement their ill-informed positions regarding persons with mental issues, forgetting that they too are prone to err,” explains Dorothy Tembo, 39.
Dorothy is a sad woman. After being married for 23 years, her husband filed for divorce in a Lusaka Local Court in March this year, resulting in the dissolution of her marriage. The plaintiff had argued that his wife was an alcoholic who often drank into stupor and failed to meet her matrimonial obligations.
But Dorothy denies these claims and contends that her mental condition compelled her husband to file for divorce.
“He told me times without number that he was not going to continue being married to someone who takes medication everyday just to keep her sanity. He not only publicly humiliated me, but also went on to tell anyone who cared to listen to him that I had a mental condition. His actions fuelled people’s negative attitudes towards me thereby worsening the situation,” laments Dorothy.
She later went on to recount how she developed the said mental condition, which she has lived with for four years now.
“It all started after I discovered that my husband was having an affair with my best friend. I went into depression for several months.
“I do not exactly remember events leading to my brief admission at Chainama Hills College Hospital but I do recall feeling like a whirlwind was brewing right on top of my head one day after which I am told I started hallucinating. My family members rushed me to a nearby health facility where I was referred to Chainana Hills College Hospital.
“I have since learnt to contain the condition through medication and by avoiding things that may cause a relapse,” says Dorothy.
Before her divorce, she had hoped that her husband, whom she has seven children, would come to terms with her condition and provide the necessary support.
Having realised that her deep affection for her husband was not well-grounded, Dorothy has made it her mission to advise people to be rational and seek counsel as they go into relationships, particularly intimate ones.
“Do not be too incensed with someone, it may cost you your sanity,” she cautions and adds “follow your heart but be sure to carry your brain as well.”
She was quick to praise her siblings who she said supported her during crises moments and continue to encourage her to be the best she can be.
“I am blessed to have such caring and supportive people by my side. It makes me more determined to pursue my aspirations,” she enthuses.
And Mental Health Users Network of Zambia (MHUNZA) has called for the establishment and strengthening of support systems within communities.
The organisation observes that a significant number of persons with mental issues continue to suffer in silence because they are not given the necessary support by their families and society.
“There is need to have support groups in schools, religious organisations and the creation of safe spaces where individuals with mental issues can freely interact and share knowledge on how best to address issues they face every day,” asserts MHUNZA executive director Sylvester Katontoka.
Mr Katontoka has also urged persons facing challenges related to mental health to desist from living in denial and join support groups.
“Mental health issues can be managed with proper support and interventions. One needs not live a miserable life just because they have a mental health problem because it is possible to live a fulfilling life,” notes Mr Katontoka.
He says a lot needs to be done to ensure that systems in the country are able to adequately respond to mental health issues.
“Stakeholders would do well to invest in interventions that seek to address stigma and discrimination associated with mental health disorders so as to encourage communities to accommodate persons with mental health challenges,” he adds.
Government recognises that mental health problems and mental disorders are a major disease burden within the community.
The National Health Policy indicates that the mental health situation is driven by factors such as family systems, poverty, rising rates of urbanisation, unemployment, alcohol and substance abuse (including tobacco), child abuse, HIV/AIDS, and violence against women.
The common mental disorders found in Zambia are acute psychotic episodes, schizophrenia, mood disorders, alcohol and substance abuse-related problems and organic brain syndromes, especially due to HIV and AIDS.
The Government also recognises that that though no comprehensive epidemiological studies have been undertaken to determine the extent of mental illnesses in the Zambian population, it is estimated that 20-30 percent of the general population has mental health problems.
In an effort to address mental health issues, the Government has pledged to strengthen the legal and institutional framework for mental health services and expand preventive, promotional, diagnostic, curative and rehabilitative mental health services, including reduction of stigma.
It has also pledged to strengthen multi-sectoral coordination of mental health services as well as promote the reduction of the abuse of psychoactive substances such as alcohol, and other drugs.
This is to be done through the use of comprehensive, promotional, preventive, curative and rehabilitative services as stipulated in the National Health Policy.
There are many different mental disorders, with different manifestations. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), mental disorders include depression, bipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia and other psychoses, dementia, intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders, including autism.
An estimated one in four people globally will experience a mental health condition in their lifetime.
According to the United Nations (UN), depression will be the second highest cause of disease burden in middle-income countries and the third highest in low-income ones by 2030.
Depression is a common mental disorder and one of the main causes of disability worldwide. Globally, an estimated 300 million people are affected by depression. More women are affected than men.
There are effective strategies for preventing mental disorders such as depression as well as effective treatments and ways to alleviate the suffering caused by mental disorders.
Access to health care and social services capable of providing treatment and social support is key to tackling mental disorders.