Thursday, January 7, 2010

Misunderstanding 'Madness'

If you are reading this, then I put it to you that you are ignorant; that you have lack the ability to exhibit any signs of intelligence. Even worse, I think you’re incapable of emerging from your state of ignorance.

Annoyed?

Good. What you have just experienced is an iota of the prejudice faced by Ghanaians struggling with mental illness.

Here in Ghana, we use the word ‘mad’ to describe anyone exhibiting any degree of mental illness, like we are qualified doctors prescribing some incurable disease we are all experts on. We extend the word to cover anyone who exhibits any sign of consistent irregular behaviour. If they are ‘lucky’, we treat them like outcasts. If that person is really unlucky though, they may find themselves in church with a pastor holding their their head, chanting “shabalababalalalaba” over them.

Very few of us have any real understanding of mental illness, how many different kinds of mental illnesses there are, whether any of its many forms can be cured and how to deal with it when we are confronted by it.
Georgina Pipson, the 33 year-old mother suspected to have poisoned her five children at Nyanoa in the Central Region, died in hospital this morning after having earlier tried to commit suicide.

Many people began judging this woman before her death with the same level of judgement they would apply to someone cold, calculating and in full possession of their mental faculties (PS: Lady Jaye has since corrected me here, reminding me that just because someone has a mental illness does not mean they are never lucid. See her comment).

Some will say Georgina got what she deserved, while others may say she should have stayed alive to face the criminal consequences of her alleged actions. What very few people will however wonder is what was the extent of her mental ailment and whether this dire tragedy could have been avoided by dealing with it effectively.

Think about it this way. If - with your full faculties - you have ever found it difficult to control your thoughts, words or emotions; buying something on impulse although it makes no sense, or falling in love with the wrong person even though you know they will hurt you, then imagine how hard it is for someone with a mental illness is to control their thoughts, words and emotions.

Murder is still not justified in such circumstances, but there is a reason why it is possible for people to make insanity or reduced capability pleas in a court defence. Why? Because it has implications for establishing  mens rea and actus reas (intention and action), the two things that need to be established before someone can be found guilty for a crime.

Media reports suggest Georgina Pipson had been in and out of Kpantang and was receiving medical treatment for her condition. No one has said anything about exactly what her condition was, what the symptoms are of that condition (was it schizophrenia, for example?), whether she had made any progress, whether she was taking her medication and if not, why not.

If we fail to ask and demand answers to these questions, then we are setting the tone for this kind of tragedy to happen again and when it does, we will only have ourselves to blame.

8 comments:

  1. Just because a person has mental problems does not mean they don't possess control of their mental faculties some of the time - that is a stereotype you perpetuate with this write up. For all u know, it could have been in a moment of clarity that she killed those children, in which case, mental problems or not, she is responsible for her actions. But all that is neither here nor there. Neither judgment nor sympathy do her any help now. I just wish this affair was not made public, or at least names (last names?) were not made public, so that the people who are left behind, who are affected - (the husband and co)can heal away from our gossipy society: it's enough to make anyone commit suicide.

    As for mental health in Ghana....that is a whole nother story...and ur right, we do ought to be ashamed of ourselves.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Well made point, Lady Jaye: she could indeed have been fully in control at the time.

    I think some good can however come out of all of this if there is some constructive conversation around it. I wish it were otherwise but it takes tragedies like this to sometimes shift the social consciousness and ensure it doesn't happen again.

    ReplyDelete
  3. I agree with lady Jaye. The first question I asked was if she was mad. Still may her soul and theirs rest in peace.

    ReplyDelete
  4. I think an important point should be made here. Not all serial killers or mass murderers are mad or have schizophrenic tendencies. Most of them are very clever individuals who manage to evade the grasp of the law for years at times. Doesn't mean those who get caught are mad either.

    In fact it is in very rare cases that you might find schizophrenics being violent.

    In a country where in some places people with varying forms of mental illnesses are bound hands and feet by steel chains or on occassions tethered to trees like ruminants, it is going to take a some serious awareness campaign on the part of the MOH; something on the scale of HIV awareness campaigns,may be. But thats just wishful thinking. And so is the hope of this kind of thing not happening again. Sadly.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Happy New Year! Good to see you back here. Nice post, troubling topic...

    I think Ghanaians have a long way to go before they begin to appreciate the value of being *mens rea*, or of sound mind in a sound body. I see that a lot of people take it for granted that just because you are managing your life fairly well does not mean you fall foul to days when you question what life is all about, or feel lonesome.

    The African culture, IMHO, needs some serious education on what mentl health is, and how to cultivate it. Extended families don't necessarily enhance good mental health!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Great post - the problem is not purely Ghanaian but also sadly exists in other parts of Africa.

    ReplyDelete
  7. Its all over Africa and the sad thing is when they bring their children abroad and the teacher notices something is wrong with the child, the parents deny and reject such "accusation"..and that my friend is our mentality. we're just too fucking sane to be insane...lol

    ReplyDelete
  8. Checkout my re-vamped blog FPRINT 2.O at http://fprint23.wordpress.com
    Be kind, Leave a comment/feedback or two and happy reading ;-)

    Que, what do I have to do to get back on your blog roll?

    ReplyDelete