“Just shut up, you epileptic man. You are the cause for my father’s suffering and poverty. In fact, you are the cause for all of us to suffer. You just need to die and leave us in peace. You’re suffering us. Look at me, I can’t even play football with my friends because they think I will give them epilepsy. You are a curse.”
This is my own voice almost eighteen years ago. In 1994, I subjected my late epileptic uncle to inhuman treatment and suffering.
Nearly two decades later, this voice continues to reverberate in my mind and ears. It haunts me like a ghost since I last attended a workshop on mental health and mental illness conducted by the Carter Center and the Ministry of Health & Social Wealth in Monrovia, Liberia.
Epilepsy, I learned, is not a mental illness. However, it is included and discussed as such because it is a brain sickness.
I was born to see my late uncle suffer from epilepsy. Matter of fact, the illness treated him very badly — so badly that I hated him for it.
I meted out the most severe treatment against him because of his condition. Among other things, I ‘drowned’ his head in a calabash of unfiltered water; I even publicly humiliated him. Evidently, whenever I chained him besides a fire or ‘drowned’ him in the water, he became violent. This violent response I understood as a lesson for him to steer clear of me and a motivation within him to want to die earlier to end his suffering at my hands.
Despite my harm toward him, he loved me the most among my brethren. This love I also translated into hate for him ‘because his loving me will bring him closer to me and cause my friends to chastise me.’ Before his death, I remember him saying, “You think I chose to be sick? It is God who put me in this condition. Suppose you keep treating me like this, then I pray to God to make one of your child (children) like me?”
This was something I hated to hear. So, I swiftly retorted. “Just shut up! Let God punish you for saying that! It’s not God who made you sick. In fact, you are not sick. You are crazy. Don’t lie on God. God knew you would have been a witch to disturb our lives. So, he changed your evil plans and made you crazy.”
My father resented it, but the love for a child (me), even compared to a brother’s, would not allow him to stop my mistreating his brother. Although he allowed it on the surface, deeper in his heart, I could read that he deeply resented it. And so my uncle passed away. While others cried, I rejoiced for my new peace of mind. So, the story ends.
Never did I remember all of this until three weeks ago at that mental health and mental illness workshop, where, after learning some causes, signs, preventive measures, types and treatment for mental illnesses, that I first expressed my guilt. Workshop facilitators, Dr. Janice Cooper and Karine McClean have consoled me not to feel guilty or blame myself. But I know they were only being diplomatic. Deep in my heart, since then, I have always felt guilty and blameworthy of my uncle’s death.
If this education had come much earlier, I know my uncle won’t have died the way he did. I am a Muslim and a very traditional person from the Mandingo tribe of mama-Africa. I believe in predestination. I believe one dies if it has been so appointed only by Allah, the Almighty. Yet, without my mistreatment, I believe my uncle would not have died in pains and an anguish that could not be revenged. Like me, many people would not have treated their epileptic and mentally ill relatives the way we did. I know I was not alone in this. As young persons, we held amateur meetings on how to treat our mentally-ill.
Had I known that an epileptic person is and can be as normal any other person; had I known that epilepsy can be treated; had I known that epilepsy is only a brain sickness and not necessarily a witchery; had I known that my chaining him besides a fire and ‘drowning’ him into water was what provoked the violent response from him and inflicted physical and psychological injuries on him; had I known that if I had been a little caring and understanding, he would have lived a little longer and never died in pains; had I known that part of keeping an epileptic person safe is keeping him or her away from fire and water and away from crowds … only if I had known …
Even more painful to me is that after the Carter Center training, I returned to my father to ask about the cause of my late uncle’s epilepsy. He told me for the first time in his and my lifetime that his brother’s condition was a result of a heavy tree falling on his head while they went on the farm in 1944. Out of curiosity and wanting to express my regret, I had to travel to Karnplay, Nimba County, my birthplace and the place that sad event occurred. Standing with my father beside the tree that fell on his brother 48 years before his death in 1992, I sobbed and regretted in sober reflection my past treatment. Had I known … Only if I had known …
So, after all, his epilepsy was not a witch. It was because of a natural disaster. I am so sorry!!!!
In any case, my new education is of no use now to my late uncle. But with it, never will I let another person die the way my uncle did. The education I have gotten is a sufficient tool to let others live and enjoy life as I do. I may not have the finances to take care of them, but transferring the education to a wider audience, I know, is even more powerful because ‘prevention is better than cure’ and because the right education is the most powerful weapon.
This new education was only revealed in a few hours over two successive days. Yet, the impact in my life has a tremendous effect — more than thirteen years of secondary education, four years tertiary education, and many tears of professional education because it affects me directly and society as well. As a society member, it is a moral responsibility on me and any other person to keep it cordial and cohesive and not discriminate or segregate. Hence, my own effort to educate people on mental illnesses.
This became even more important when we were taught at the workshop that “mental-illness is everybody’s business; that every medical illness has a mental condition attached.” Wow! This means one way or the other, we all have mental illnesses at some times. Worse, the population of Liberia one way or another saw and experienced the civil war, which can cause post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Various researchers have shown that 44 percent of all Liberians suffer PTSD. No one should be discriminated against for being mentally ill. Everyone must join in advocating for the right policies and budgetary support toward mental health and mental illnesses.
Budget makers as well as budget passers must ensure that appropriate policies and financial allocations are given programs on mental health because doing so will mean doing one of the single-most important good for all Liberia, ye mama-nature.
Mental health clinicians and support advocates have indicated that only less than one percent of the national budget is given toward mental health, which is a national shame. Mental health or mental illness is everybody’s burden at one point in time or another, considering what percent of our overall population is directly affected by this condition.
I strongly believe that reconciliation, for which the government has budgeted $5 million (in U.S. dollars) within the current draft national budget, will be difficult to achieve if a significant percentage of those who are supposed to be reconciled are people suffering from mental illnesses.
How does one reconcile when he or she is not even normal? Reconciliation comes from the mind and brain! If that mind is non-responsive, how does it decipher what is good as reconciliation, or bad as disunity and grudges? Palava hut reconciliation discussions are great ideas, of course. But these discussions are only good if the mind and brain speak well of them. If the opposite is what the minds and brains interpret about the palava hut discussions, then I see a challenge toward achieving reconciliation.
So, the issue of mental health or mental illnesses has many folds to consider: natural health of the population; achievability of reconciliation; citizens’ physical contribution toward national recovery processes; and their interpersonal relationships. All these can be achieved if the appropriate approaches, including policies and budgetary allotment, are taken toward mental health and mental illnesses.
Words cannot explain it all. But my heart at first was heavy for hurting my late uncle. Now, my heart has become light on the realization that not doing what I did then, many mentally ill persons can live normal lives.
As a journalist, at least I have a better advantage now than before. When I could only speak to a few persons before, I can now speak, through the pages of my newspaper and airwaves of radio stations, to a wider audience far and near. This opportunity I can’t let go. I have it, others don’t, and so I must make use of it. I am launching a Facebook page and a new column in the Public Agenda newspaper soon and on our website upon return from the interior.
I invite one and all to help rid society of misconceptions about mental illness and encourage society to pay more attention to and give care to the mentally ill. They, too, are us.