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The silent disease

Republic of the Congo

The streets of Pointe Noire, the economic city of the Republic of Congo.

This is a normal day just like any other with people going about their daily lives.

But at this particular area in the central business district, is a man probably unaware of what’s going on around him.

He and others like him are branded all sorts of derogatory names. Simply to mean, mentally unstable.

A few blocks away, is this girl.

Her name is Mixiana Laba. You might think she is also mentally challenged but she’s not. She disguised herself this way in the hope of drawing attention to the plight mentally unstable people face.

Her street show titled “blind reality” is a subject close to her heart. She says these individuals, abandoned on the streets are also human beings who deserve to be well treated and well taken care of.

The 22-year-old comedian and budding film director says speaking about the reality of the mentally challenged people seems like taboo that nobody likes to talk about and receives little or no public attention.

“I am very touched by the life of the mentally challenged in our city of Pointe Noire. So I decided to do this to try to awaken the Congolese people, for the management, awareness, so that we can find a solution for them. Why not build an asylum, because since 1996 there’s nothing. Seeing these people on the streets, seeing that no one pays attention to them even when they end up going back to the same place. So, as an artist I represent these people, and I hope there will be a change in their case,” she says.

By the time she’s almost done with her spectacle, a large number of curious onlookers has already assembled to find out what this is all about.

In November 2017, Mixiana produced a short film documentary during a workshop for upcoming film directors in the region.

She scooped the award for the best film, which highlighted the societal ignorance of the mentally unstable.

Mixiana is just among the few who are concerned about what people with mental illness go through.

Many a times they’re abandoned by their families and left to fend for themselves.

The society looks down upon them as they are seen as a menace.

But why so much ignorance for these individuals? And why is there stigma against them?

“It is often said that in a family, everyone is important, even a mental patient. I think mentally ill patients are always and still important. We can always do what is necessary to grant them what is rightfully theirs,” said Harvin Ismael, an actor in the country.

“These are people just like us. It’s just that they live in another world but they are like us. As artists, we have a duty to be the voice of the voiceless, to push people to understand this phenomenon, to be there for them, to support them. They are sick like people who have malaria. It’s not witchcraft. We really must support them so that the situation changes,” said Doria Lembe, an actress in the country.

In most African societies, mental illness is associated with witchcraft, thus seeking medical attention is not always the first option. Some seek divine intervention in places of worship.

But what do health experts think about the situation of the invisible yet devastating condition?

“The place where you have to go is the hospital. It is at the hospital where you will be cared for. Not elsewhere. But of course, everyone is free to decide where they want to be assisted and treated. But generally speaking, all those patients who go to see the healers, the church, they always end up coming back to us and give us reason,” said Dr Dauphin Octave Michel Matemolo, the only psychiatrist at the Adolphe Sice Hospital.

According to the psychiatrist, the challenge in the treatment of mentally ill patients in the region is the doctor to patient ratio and the inadequate mental health facilities.

“The care of the mentally ill is complex. It must not be limited to the taking of drugs. There are many other things. For example in terms of psychotherapy, and to do all this you need to have adequate structures. Because a patient who is suffering from psychosis or depression, as a result of a problem he has must be treated medically and psychologically. And even for the hospitalized patients we do group therapies. But we can’t do that today because the structures don’t allow it.”

“We are the only reference hospital in the sub-region. We take into account patients from Pointe Noire, from the department of Kouilou, Niari, Bouenza, Likoumou, some parts of Cabinda in Angola, southern Gabon and even the DRC. Patients come but we can’t hospitalize them,” said Jean Raoul Chocolat, the hospital’s General Director.

The hospital officials acknowledge the existing challenges they face, worsened by an economic crisis the country is currently facing. Drugs like tranquilizers are way expensive for some households.

They say government funds allocated for mental health of about 100 thousand dollars is helping in the renovation and construction of the hospital mental health wing.

The government on the other hand believes mental health asylums should be built. But before doing that, there should be enough personnel to cater for these patients.

At the moment, this is not the case.

“We really want to solve this problem. The constraint however is, do we have the doctors the psychiatrists who will agree to go work in these centers? We will raise the issue at the level of the ministry, because the decision making competence will be transferred, in the transfer of competence that we will do. There are three areas: education, health and road maintenance; so for health, it is the city, the local community that will build some hospital facilities and therefore within this framework we can build centers for the mentally ill. But primarily we must have specialists, those who are specialized in the care of the mentally ill, we need all these data to make a decision,” said Jean Francois Kando, the Mayor of the city of Pointe Noire.

With no help in sight for the mentally challenged patients Mixiana says the journey of raising awareness for mental illness has just began as she is not planning to give up this fight any time soon.

She says she will only stop when authorities in the country will stop neglecting the mentally unstable patients by fully taking good care of them.

“I don’t want to fail in this. I don’t want to be negative. I don’t need to think otherwise. Where I am now, I say to myself, “yes it will be okay.” W e are going to have a solution for them, people will be treated, there will be an asylum, there will be a follow-up by the doctors. Even if I know it will take time. But I want to keep this faith that I have. It’s hard for me; I will continue, I can’t stop something that is not finished.”

As medical experts will tell you, for as long as you have a brain, you too can suffer mental illness. This is because the brain is an organ in our bodies just like the heart or the kidney. And this is information vital to fight stigma against mental illness and instead offer help to the affected individuals.

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