Every society struggles with how to deal with mental illness. Whether they live in the wealthy world or an African village, families can be tested to breaking point when a child or parent has a mental health problem such as bipolar disorder. It isn’t that long ago that the developed world locked the afflicted away, out of shame, fear and ignorance. Arguably, we still have a long way to go.
Imagine how much worse it is if your community believes mental illness is a curse from the spirit world. The stigma is so enormous that sufferers are chained up and hidden.
This was the miserable situation facing the Okot family in northern Uganda. Their son Charles, in his early twenties, had become violent. His long-suffering parents kept him in chains most of the time because they were afraid of him. Then, one day, his mother Grace heard about Network for Africa’s partner, PCCO, who provide counselling and support for people with mental health problems. She phoned the PCCO hotline, desperate for help. One of PCCO’s counsellors visited the Okot home and found Charles gibbering and drawing in the sand. He took Charles to the Patongo Health Centre to see the psychiatric nurse. There, Charles was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and prescribed medication. Over time, his condition improved and his family felt safe enough to remove the chains.
PCCO’s work did not stop there. The counsellor visits the Okot home regularly, making sure Charles takes his medication. Charles is now coming to the clinic by himself, and has cleared the family’s garden in preparation for the planting season, something he would not have been willing or able to do just a year before. He is now part of the family’s farming business, pulling his weight, helping them earn an income. His father, who had ignored Charles for years, too embarrassed and ashamed to acknowledge him, is now close to his son.
Charles’s success story is one of many in Patongo, thanks to the dedication of PCCO’s counsellors. But there is more at stake than individual stories like that of the Okot family. Network for Africa has trained local leaders to understand and identify mental illness in their community. Countering the fear and stigma is the first step toward getting people like the Okots to come out of the shadows, and to seek professional help. We salute PCCO, and our volunteer counselling team, Barbara and Shelly, for their devotion to this cause.
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