My mental health as an African girl

My understanding of mental health is relatively new. Prior to living in Canada, my perception of someone with mental health issues was “that the person was mental, kolo, or possessed. These terms all mean crazy to one degree or another.

Obviously, my knowledge and awareness about mental health was severely lacking. And though I am not still an expert in the subject of mental health, I have come to an understanding of what it is and also a realization that some of my societal norms and traditions seriously impact my mental health.

Mental Health definition – “A persons condition with regard to their psychological and emotional well-being” ~ Wikipedia. By this definition and the millions of resources out there, we can surmise that it is not a tangible disease. We cannot see it. Its psychological or emotional.

Most Africans would equate any sort of mental health issues with weakness of character or even being prone to bewitchment. Using myself as an example, I have always prided myself as a strong woman, people have called me strong for various reasons. When I mentioned that I was having some anxiety issues and couldn’t sleep, the default response from my African circle was that maybe I needed prayers aka deliverance (largely meaning that there might be some evil forces at play). Now as a christian, I know the spiritual exists, but come on… somethings are just health related.

Knowing what I know now about mental illness and seeing several real life examples of how seemingly harmless encounters in a persons life could culminate in the person being mentally ill, I have come to the realization that my personal mental health is a thing to protect.

Some things that impact my emotions and generally threaten my mental health right now include;

The Issue of Marriage

This is very closely tied to our culture and tradition of women being homemakers. I think Africans and more specifically Nigerians are guilty of frustrating women and to some extent men by this issue.

It is not uncommon for a single woman to get the following statements from someone familiar as well as complete strangers.

  • “You want to get a postgraduate degree? get married instead” or
  • “no man would want to marry someone too educated. or,
  • you are nothing if you don’t have a husband, you are only as good as your family…etc. and much worse.

They have basically tied our worth as human beings to the institution called marriage. And while I want to get married, and will do so at the right time and right person, this constant drone of marriage discussions gives me a lot of anxiety.

In the long gone past, the sole purpose of a woman was to marry and be a homemaker. Not so much these days, women have their own lives, careers and don’t necessarily need to conform to that ideology. I understand that parents want the best for their children but the constant nagging about marriage seriously threatens my mental health.

People who compare others

Some people never got the memo that no one likes to be compared with someone else. If you decide to be friends with someone else, take them at their own merit instead of wishing they were like so and so. If your child is not as obedient as the other, then focus on the positives that child has.

People who compare are basically complainants. They would never ever be satisfied even if you became Mother Theresa or gave them your heart. They don’t deserve to be part of your life.

It takes a strength of character to be your own person in a world of so many copycats. Do not let other people try and create you into the version they prefer. Own yourself completely. One of the early indicators of mental health issues should include “constant compromising of yourself and your principles to make others happy”. This might lead to a host of other serious mental disorders.

Verbally abusive people

Have you met a typical Nigerian person? Born in Nigeria and definitely indoctrinated by Nigerian norms? They are mostly so abusive. They yell to communicate, respond to tensive situations with insults and are by default aggressive.

I never used to take note of insults/abuses or curses when I was back home. It was/is part of the fabric of society to some extent. Shop keepers yelling, parents yelling, dogs barking, horns blaring. I guess they all just merged into a cacophony of sound.

But now, when I think back or when I interact with someone from back home, I notice it, the in your face insult, the curses. Previously, I could just brush the insults off and move on. But these days, that wall of protection seems to be wearing thin. I feel the sharp barbs/thorns of those insults on my emotions. This keeps me awake on some occasions are take a lot of introspection before I am able to get past it.

But if anything is robbing me of my sleep then it is adversely impacting my mental health so I cut off abusive influences whatever they might be; family, friends, TV shows, books etc.

Real life example

As a result of some aspect of my job, I came across a man in his 60’s who had some mental health issues. These issues, though previously intangible had over the years affected his life. He was in and out of hospitals on average of 4 times a week, had attempted suicide a few times, couldn’t hold down a job, a recovering alcoholic and couldn’t sleep. I sat down briefly with him to have a chat on life in general and after sometime we segued into how he thinks his issued had started. What he shared were along the lines of…

“His mom had been abusive, verbally and physically. He shared an early memory of losing their puppy when he was about 14 years and the family had taken it very hard. But he most remembers his mom saying she wished “he” had died instead of the puppy”. That sentence had affected this mans whole life and he had been plagued with thoughts of never been good enough”.

Africans are very religious, we believe words carry a lot of weight especially from if said by an elder. Some Africans unfortunately, do not mind their words and proceed to spew whatever nonsense comes to their mouth.

So my top action lists for protecting my mental health as a single African girl include;

  • Avoiding (like a plague) anyone who insinuates or tries to determine my self worth and achievement based on the presence or absence of a “husband” in my life.
  • Avoiding people who constantly compare you to others. Its OK to address it and help them notice the impact on you, but if it continues then deuces…
  • Avoid anyone who hasn’t learned to control their tongue. No matter who they are to you. Forget the fact that its the norm back home. Everyone deserves to be treated with respect. If we do not address these wrong habits, norms and attitudes then we tacitly agree and even more dangerous, we propagate such habits on coming generations.
  • Evaluating my own actions and responses, and ensuring that I are more aware of myself and my influence on others both intentionally and otherwise. Saving my cheap apologies by being in control of my thoughts, words and actions. (Afterall, I was born in Nigeria and largely indoctrinated by the culture ;)

The constant show/facade of strength and lack of any room for vulnerability or even discussions of how these issues affect us are doing more damage to the collective mental health of the people. Wikipedia estimates about 20 million Nigerians in Nigeria suffer from Mental health issues. I dare say that the numbers are much higher. Because, half the people who walk the streets are not sane, we only have the facade of sanity.

If you don’t safeguard your mental health, then no one will. If or when you have a mental health episode, they (everybody else) will be the first to label you as either kolo, mental, or possessed.

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