The persecution of the mentally ill


I have written previous articles on the association between cultural transition and mental health, against the background of the knowledge that some mental illnesses are related to culture. The care of the mentally ill cannot be wholesome without an interrogation of the cultural values of the particular environment.

Culture is everything about the life of the man and in this discourse, it serves as the substrate for the development of mental capital which is very crucial for national development.

Historical periods in the life of a people are designated with respect to profound changes in their values. The enlightenment era was characterised by asking question, thinking and reading, which dethroned existing cultural values replaced by new ones.

Cultural values remain the life-blood of societal practices and survival was only guaranteed through myths, superstitions and taboos passed down through generations. Education as a potent agent of socialisation is not only crucial in the inculcation of values, but also in its interrogation. African scholarship has not adequately interrogated our cultural values in the context of other practices elsewhere, hence we have become cultural ambassadors struggling to market a culture that is not scrutinised.

Possibly as a consequence of colonialism, the elite Africans become defensive when certain primitive and horrible aspects of our culture are challenged, just as they mount up arguments showcasing some of our outdated practices as comparisons. There is a strong disconnect between our education and the development of egalitarian values, which is quite disturbing.

Our values seem frozen at the primitive, pre-colonial level, despite our encounter with some of the best educational facilities in the world. No culture is virgin, just as there is no distinct American or British culture because, over time, these societies had to shelve harmful practices in the light of empirical good practices.

The young, modern parents have the challenging task of nurturing children who have broken away from our traditional African practices without a clear destination in mind. While the Nollywood has chosen to tickle our cultural fantasies possibly for pecuniary rewards, the musical world has refused to be patronizing, as they produce songs loaded with protests, freedom akin to psychological jail break, with complimentary dress sense.

Mental illness is not a native of Africa; it is the consequence of being human. Ever since the 11th century, the church had been beleaguered by heresies, demands for economic and religions reform, and other types of protests and insurrections. As opposition to the excesses of the church at that time mounted during the early Renaissance, such counter-attacks occurred with increasing frequency and brutality. People were accused of being in league with the devil and of committing heinous acts such as eating children, staging sexual orgies and the like.

The charges soon spread, creating a climate of fear and hysteria in which anyone who behaved strangely stood in danger of being tried and executed for witchcraft. It is estimated that from the middle of the 15th century to the end of the 17th, about 100,000 people were executed as witches.

During the 17th century, as many as 20,000 ‘witches’ may have been put to death in Scotland alone. Beyond the religio-political undertones of the witch hunt, the mentally ill were major victims, borrowing strength from the prevailing belief of demonic possession as the main cause of mental illness. However, the same society has given us the modern science of psychiatry and most churches are spending billions of dollars yearly, dedicated to the modern care of the mentally ill today because their erroneous cultural values were challenged and modified.

Africans cannot continue this way without a dispassionate interrogation of our values as we craft new ones to administer our lives.

The ‘Soka forest saga’ in Ibadan, Oyo State, is a shame where ritual killings are alleged to take place until the bubble burst. Many stories abound — ritual forest, abandoned rehabilitation centres for the mentally ill — but my major concern is subjecting the homeless mentally ill as victims of mob attack and torture through a cultural, unverified link of this cohort to ritual killings.

I understand that this persecution has spread to other major towns in the southwest. The government must take an immediate step to rescue these harmless mentally ill by providing a designated place for their rehabilitation, where claims of ritual involvement can be objectively clarified.

Corporate bodies and good spirited philanthropists should please rise up to this challenge and preserve our human dignity by intervening in this ugly, retrogressive and barbaric maltreatment of the mentally ill because of our primitive fixation to an obsolete theory that links mental illness to rituals.

                             These folks can be treated; and they are on the streets in the first instance because of lack of social support.


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