I just learnt a few hours ago that today (10th of October) is World Mental Health Day. If I knew earlier, I’d have written a longer, more nuanced reflection but here we are.
As part social scientist, part storyteller, I encounter heartbreaking stories and realities almost every time I open a book or a journal article. I mean, if you’re to study things like poverty, inequality, oppression, race, gender, etc, then, especially when these things affect you personally, you have to be ready to face agonising but not-so-surprising realities. But nothing quite prepares you for the heartbreak that studying mental health, especially at the intersection of all the factors above, comes with.
Here’s the thing: studies show that about one in four of us will encounter significant mental health illnesses in our lifetimes. And all of us encounter stresses that test our mental health almost on a daily basis. Yet, our governments invest less than 1% of health budgets in mental health (health budgets which are themselves strained) and we barely have policies and facilities to support the mentally ill or those who care for them. To put this in perspective, Kenya, a country of close to 50 million has one public psychiatric hospital (something that probably most Kenyans aren’t even aware of). Mental health, the wellness of what’s arguably the most important organ in our bodies, is a luxury good in the same world seeking to colonise Mars. (I can’t be the only one who spots that irony.) So, we medicate and drug our bodies—making us feel better in the meantime but not really fixing the problem (and sometimes making it worse).
And then we go around pretending to be perfect. We’re all “fine”. But sometimes the centre cannot hold and suddenly we’re shocked when eruptions happen. Especially with young folks who’re seen as somehow gifted (like myself and a lot of my friends). You see folks on social media living the #goals kind of life but when you really talk to them, the toll on their mental health is heavy. I have personal stories with mental health that I hope to get the courage to write some time soon. But for now I am trying to understand as much as I can. Hence the reason I find myself as the only male student and the only black person in my Mental Health in the Global South post-grad class (but as an ex-Psychology major in an American liberal arts college, I’m kinda used to taking classes with white girls so I’ll be fine lol).
So, where to go from here? Maybe starting with ourselves. Acknowledging that we’re not okay sometimes and that’s fine. Seeking out help and connection. Being courageous and vulnerable to let others know that we’re not well. Maybe really talking and listening to our friends and loved ones even when they seem to be doing okay. Because unlike when you break an elbow, mental illness doesn’t always come with a splint, with physical evidence. Sometimes it’s a smile that so convincing, you’d fail to notice that the eyes weren’t smiling. On a macro scale, maybe pushing our governments and organisations to take the health of our minds a little bit more seriously?