09/17/2012 09:41 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2012

Africa, Disability and Mental Illness: When Will We Evolve?

Some days, I find it unbelievable how little has changed in Africa. We seem to evolve slowly and quite frankly, there is no reason for this pace. Yes, I do understand that we are people of tradition and our culture and beliefs hold us almost stationary, but our evolution in some areas takes a snail's pace, especially when it comes to dealing with disabilities and mental illness in Africa.

I grew up in Calabar, Nigeria and for most of my young life there -- two family friends hid their children's mental illness. It was something that carried shame and fear. It shocked me when I discovered it years later -- one was a child I had never seen until the death of a parent and the other, I found out about when the grown child had a mental breakdown here in the US. The shock for me that even with these "modern Africans" felt the stigma of mental illness and made one family hide a child and the other never mention that their child had Schizophrenia. These two revelations years ago made me reflect on the fear and shame that Africans have about mental illness and disabilities.

In Calabar, I am reminded of how many mentally ill and disabled people roamed the streets. That was in the 70's and 80's - so imagine when I came to live in New York in the mid 80's and to see the same thing. In short, the developing world and the so-called developed world - New York - treats people the same way, simply, we do not take care of our most vulnerable. We either hide them or let them roam our streets.

The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that about 14 percent of the total global disease burden could be attributed to mental, neurological and substance abuse issues, and as much as 40 percent of people attending outpatient clinics in sub-Saharan Africa have problems related to emotional or mental health. In 2005, the World Health Organization (WHO) endorsed mental health as a universal human right and a fundamental goal for health care systems of all countries. And if you visit African countries, you will find very little provisions made even in South Africa and Nigeria. When will Africa learn to take responsibility and support its most vulnerable people?

You can tell how a nation is serious by how it treats its most vulnerable. Nigeria currently has a draft Mental Health Bill at the National Assembly, which is yet to be passed into law. The local expression would be: Which Way Naija? Meaning, what's going on? And my added comment: "why is it taking so long?" The bill is to protect the rights of persons with mental disorders, ensure access to treatment and care, discourage stigma and discrimination and set standards for psychiatric practice in Nigeria.

A recent article in outlines some of the issues, "until African states face the underlying problems of poverty and social stigma, they cannot address the issue of mental illness." The realistic challenge is that African countries spend about 2 percent of their budgets on healthcare and mental illness is not a priority. Africa needs to face its smallest and largest problems and mental illness in the midst of all its other issues and conflicts is one critical issue. It is time Africa. Your people need you to act in their best health interests.

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