In a country where mental health services are often inaccessible and are not integrated with primary health care, a radio host becomes an advocate for treatment after realizing that silence and shame often surround mental illness. Meanwhile, a Ministry of Health spokesman says a new law will seek to encourage treatment, prevention, diagnosis, rehabilitation and support of mentally ill patients.
LUSAKA, ZAMBIA — Chatewa Dominic signs off his “Chatback” radio show on Radio Christian Voice, where he had been discussing the lack of government policies to aid those with physical disabilities.
Off air, he chats with his guests who are still talking about the lack of inclusiveness for the disabled. Dominic’s contribution diverts to mental health.
“It’s the same with us in mental health,” Dominic says, referring to the stigma associated with mental health issues in Zambia.
Dominic, who in 2015 was diagnosed with a mental disorder, says he opted to become an advocate for mental health after realizing that there was so much silence and even shame surrounding mental illness. He says the silence has bred ignorance, stigma and abuse of mental health patients.
Although the Ministry of Health recognizes mental health disorders, laws related to mental health care haven’t been updated since 1951. The 2012 national health policy estimates that 20 percent to 30 percent of Zambians have mental health issues. Yet mental health services are often inaccessible, and are not integrated with primary health care.
Prudence Phiri, GPJ Zambia
Dr. Ravi Paul, a lecturer and head of psychiatry at the University of Zambia, says mental illness is still believed by many in Zambia to be a spiritual problem. Medical attention for mentally ill patients is the last resort, after people seek alternatives such as prayers and traditional medicines, he says.
As a radio host, Dominic is able to use his show as a platform to publicly discuss mental health issues. He also now leads an organization called Mental Health Advocacy and Support Initiative (MHASI).
“No one would know that I was once treated for mental imbalance,” he says.
Dominic says he had post-traumatic stress disorder and manic depression after he had been attacked and beaten by a group of people who accused him of trespassing. When he went to a police station for help, he landed in a mental hospital, because he was still having flashbacks of the attack. He spent three days there.
He says it was his family’s efforts to conceal his illness when he was admitted to the mental hospital that motivated him to start advocating for mental health.
“When I heard my family talking about how they would conceal my illness, I knew I had to do something,” Dominic says. “Why do people with diabetes talk about their conditions? Even people with HIV talk about their conditions. So why not mental health?”
He says, “I told myself that we need to educate the public, replace ignorance with knowledge, make them understand that mental health is a health problem and not a retribution, as it is widely perceived.”
Petronella Landu, a member of MHASI, says her father, who committed suicide, had a mental disorder. His death motivated her to join the advocacy organization.
“My father had a mental disorder, but as family we always ignored it and thought it was just beer that made him behave that way,” she says. “It was until he committed suicide by drinking a bottle of battery acid that we realized it was actually a serious mental problem. But it was too late; we could do nothing to help.”
She says talking about mental illness will help people understand that it is a serious condition that needs medical attention.
“I always imagine a person who is ignorant about mental health, just like I was when my father was alive,” Landu says. “For me, it’s about saving lives; that is why I am into this advocacy.”
Dominic says MHASI has a program that targets children, youths and families.
“We target children because we know 90 percent of mental health challenges traces back to childhood,” he says. “We also realize that family is important in the prevention, care and treatment of mental health patients, hence their involvement, too.”
He says his organization is working on a project under which members of MHASI will share their personal experiences regarding mental health with children and raise awareness in schools.
Dominic says no one should be looked down upon because of a mental disorder.
Dr. Kennedy Malama, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health, says the government prioritizes mental illness despite the inadequacies of mental health services in Zambia.
He acknowledges that repealing the nation’s outdated Mental Disorders Act has been a slow process beginning with the release of the 2012 national health policy.
“It has taken five years to repeal the law,” he says. “We acknowledge the delay. The issue of coming up with a new law requires a lot of consultation, but I think the ministry acknowledges that and is doing everything possible to ensure the law is in place soon.”
Malama says the new law will seek to encourage treatment, prevention, diagnosis, rehabilitation and support of patients with mental illnesses.