Standing in a queue for the taxi, I noticed an older woman begging for money. It would not be as shocking if she did not have a young teenage boy chained to her. She dragged him alongside her as she begged for help. The look of sadness and desperation that crossed his sad face was haunting.
Pedestrians, see a lot of what goes on in the city. People’s stories are unavoidable when one is walking all the time among strangers. In a country like Ethiopia, where the ideals of religion and culture are highly intertwined, many feel that mental illnesses can be solved through religious and superstitious means.
This harmful practice has left many unseen, and unable to fight the diseases that plague them. People suffer, and families hurt.
A few years back, I was invited by a friend to visit a monastery in Entoto. He told me of the holy water where pilgrimages are made for the sake of salvation. I was intrigued. This was a cause that my friend and his friends took on each year. There were hundreds of people in small shack-like homes. I saw men’s feet chained together, or to trees, while in the distance I heard women scream. It was haunting.
I walked into one of the rooms to give a young man a bag of food and as I looked into his eyes, and the room he was in, I felt unable to move. A neat small room with a mattress on the ground. He seemed different than those I had encountered outside. He was not screaming nonsensical sentences like the others. He was quiet and looked gentle.
I stood by the edge of his room with my hands extended, and said, “for you”.
I think he could tell I was genuinely out of my comfort zone. He took the food from my hands and thanked me. As I was thinking maybe he was there visiting someone, I noticed, as he walked away, that he had his feet chained together too.
I only saw a few of the people who had made this place their residence. Many family members, mostly mothers, having given up everything to support the only way they knew how.
Ethiopia’s health system is not the best. Even though there have not been any recent studies made worldwide, it is clear we have a long way to go. In the last few months, even by walking about in the streets of Addis Abeba, we see many people in a state of delusion, mumbling, and out of touch with reality.
There are private care centres which are not affordable to the general public, while the most popular is the state-run Amanuel Mental Hospital. The facility is too crowded though, barely keeping its head over water, attending to the few that come for professional help instead of vying for a traditional method of healing.
Our culture is the reason many are unable to get better care. I believe that our communal care for one another has given many hope and wards off some mental health issues like depression.
But sometimes that is not the case. And when those around us suffer we can let them know they do not have to suffer alone. Yet that does not mean that we forget the medical care one must follow-up on.
Many go through traumatic events in life while others have chemical imbalances that can mostly only be corrected through medication.
Our language also lacks the depth in how we address mental health. For starters, the words for depression and boredom are the same in Amharic. A person warding off suicidal thoughts would have to share the same word with someone else who merely cannot find a tolerable entertainment avenue – deberegn.
My words are the most important part of who I am. I believe self-expression is an integral part of self-discovery.
But what happens when those words are not there to help us express the feelings we harbour? What happens when there is no-one there to listen?
Many shoulder the responsibility of the world, unable to share, as toxic masculinity and isolation of women prohibit these acts. It is unfortunate that our closest friends and relatives are not sharing their deepest fears and traumas with us but turn to strangers online for answers.
On Telegram, one of the most utilised apps in Ethiopia, there is Vent, a channel dedicated to those who need to share their troubles anonymously. It is mostly young people who are trying to navigate their identity in a world increasingly telling them how to be and act. People share, anonymously, thoughts of suicide and self-harm, looking for advice from people who cheer them on to choose life.
Even though not every comment is positive, it is still the only place most can turn to. Using anonymity to help get through moments of hardship. But mental health cannot be treated through anonymous comments. It needs professional intervention. There need to be more and better institutional care services in the field of mental health available for the public, and awareness about the disorder too. People do not need to suffer, especially not alone.
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