Disability associated with mental illness in Ethiopia is high, yet it has not been given due attention. In a population approaching 90 million people, up to 13% are suffering from some form of mental illness. In a country where people are already struggling for survival, the impact of mental illness on the person and their family is immense. Stigma, discrimination and human rights abuses are part of the everyday life of the mentally ill and their families in Ethiopia. Mentally ill persons with no kind of family structure are even worse hit and end up on the street and ultimately a burden on society.
Lack of common mental health services or any kind of financial support for mentally ill persons or families with a mentally ill member is the biggest factor causing caregiver burden in Ethiopia.
Furthermore, even such mental illnesses as depression are not well-recognized within the community, as it’s more likely to be misjudged, not as psychological issues but rather as psychosocial problems, such as grief, poverty or marital problems.
Help for depression is often limited to the family or local community. However, in the absence of peers, a family or community members to talk to, depression usually remains undetected. This in turn leads to other problems which can result in to a whole realm of burdens on family and community, since persons with depression often find themselves involved in substance abuse to overcome their problems, and to suicide when they feel helpless over those problems.
It is no question that increased availability of mental health services is the single most important factor to improve this situation. However, education is just as important when it comes to the cultural stigma associated with most mental illness cases in Ethiopia.
Community surveys in Ethiopia have consistently shown that severe mental illness, for example resulting from schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, is more often attributed to supernatural causes, for example spirit possession, bewitchment or evil eye, rather than as a result of biomedical or psychosocial causes. As a consequence, affected individuals and/or their families often seek help from religious and traditional healers rather than health facilities. More often than not treatable conditions are seen in their most exacerbated state due to stigma associated with mental illness.
Ledet Muleta BSN, MPH
Medixaa Health Services