The plight of an unsound mind

Home of hope: Sbrana Hospital in Lobatse
Home of hope: Sbrana Hospital in Lobatse

Locked in their own world, held captive by defective psychological processes and structures, mental health patients fight a battle for normalcy and sanity everyday. Mmegi Correspondent, TUMELO MOUWANE finds that over and above that, the mentally unwell face all manner of abuse from the ‘sane’

In the past, it was believed that mentally ill people had demons.  According to Sbrana Psychiatric Hospital senior consultant psychiatrist, Namendwa Kuboka Leech, mental health patients were subjected to all forms of torture and abuse in the name of exorcising the demons causing the illness.

“Mentally ill patients were in the past exposed to torture,” he says.

“Patients were restrained, burned and sometimes stoned to death as people believed that they would be removing the demon outside such human beings.


“We have in time seen progress in the restoration of patient dignity.”

World Mental Health Day, commemorated earlier this month, provides an opportunity annually to assess the progress made in helping sufferers.  This year’s event, held at Sbrana Hospital, focused on ‘Dignity in Mental Health’.

Even with the progress made through the decades, mental health patients suffer incredible indignity and abuse within their homes, schools and the general society, and sometimes are denied treatment.

According to Leech, families are often reluctant to bring mental health patients forward for treatment as they feel embarrassed.

“Sometimes people struggle to bring patients forward as families feel undignified for having people with mental illness within their families.

“Patients suffer socio-economic, social and general stigmatisation. Some families are ashamed of their patients and therefore hide them, while employers abandon them.”

The troubles do not stop there. According to Leech, even where mental health patients receive medication and improve, they carry the stigma of their former conditions for life.

“We have cases where families become very critical of the survivors of mental illness,” he says.

“The patients are not allowed to do certain things, even those which were their hobbies.

“Some are restricted in movement and locked behind doors because their families think they are prone to harmful bursts of spontaneity.”

For the few who actually make it to psychiatric care and support, other dangers also lurk. Leech says hospitals and other institutions have been guilty of sexually exploiting mental health patients, further eroding their dignity and self-worth.

Deputy district commissioner, Ernest Phiri, says mental health sufferers are ‘systematically’ denied a right to make decisions about issues directly affecting them.

“Many are often systematically denied the right to make decisions about their mental health care and treatment, where they want to live and their personal and financial affairs.

“Some are denied access to general and mental health care and as a result they are more likely to die prematurely, compared to the general population.

“They are often deprived of access to education and employment opportunities (and) this then relegates them to the lowest arm of the economic ladder.”

According to Phiri, mental health patients are subjected to emotional and physical abuse in mental health facilities and the broader community.

“They also suffer poor quality care due to the lack of qualified health professionals, while dilapidated facilities lead to further violations,” he says.

For the deputy district commissioner, children bear the brunt of the abuse levelled against mental health patients.

He says child mental health patients are often prevented from participating fully in their societies and denied education opportunities.

“This leads to marginalisation and exclusion from employment opportunities in later life. In some cases, people living with mental illness are even prevented from participating fully in society. They are not given the opportunity to participate in decision-making processes on issues affecting them.”

For Phiri, change is critical and the restoration of dignity to the mentally ill is urgent.

“People must encourage each other with positive mentality. We also need to restore the dignity of mentally ill patients through good communication skills so that they see the worth in themselves once again.”

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