If you want a sense of what public stigma against people with mental illness looks like, a decent place to start is the news coverage and overall reactions to American rapper Kanye West’s erratic tweets in July.
One rant that stood out was when he launched his presidential campaign in a disjointed speech. He later accused his family members of all kinds of evil.
His Tweets were fodder for news outlets, a majority of whom were catering to the insatiable appetites of their audience. More controversy. More entertainment. More spectacle.
The issue is that his tweets were taken at face value. Some social media users derived great pleasure from making fun of what he said. Memes were created and shared. Fun and entertainment was chosen repeatedly over compassion and understanding.
The rapper has opened up in the past about his struggle with bipolar disorder. According to the World Health Organization, it typically consists of both manic and depressive episodes separated by periods of normalcy. His wife, Kim Kardashian, referred to the illness as “complicated and painful”.
In an ideal world, the context of his mental illness should have been shared alongside his tweets, especially by news outlets because they owe it to the public. This would have gone a long way in fighting stereotypes and stigma.
Former World Boxing Association middleweight champion Conjestina Achieng’s story takes a similar trajectory. She has fought schizophrenia in the full glare of a public that doesn’t have a reputation for understanding her invisible enemies. Her family has suffered the burden of the injustice of public stigma.
Long before politicians used her situation for photo and publicity opportunities, videos of the boxing champion speaking erratically circulated on social and mainstream media, demonstrating once again an acute lack of empathy and understanding whenever someone struggles with mental illness. One of the assumptions about mental illness is that it’s something to snap out of at will.
More recently, the Daily Nation reported that the pandemic was driving Kenyans into the jaws of mental health issues. Psychiatrist Dr Frank Njenga later reiterated this, expressing concern about the stigma associated with mental illness.
“People are so afraid and shy of indicating that they suffer from depression or any other mental health illness that they would rather stay with their illnesses at home than expose themselves to the shame of confirming that they are humans and suffer from mental illnesses,” he said, adding that there is need to establish structures and systems to deal with stigma. If what awaits them is mockery and dismissal, who can blame them?
Let’s spare some compassion and understanding for our brothers and sisters suffering from mental illnesses. It’s the least we can do.
Ms Oneya comments on social and gender topics. [email protected]; @FaithOneya