A Positive View: How Changing How I Look At Mental Health is Helping me Heal

“Amuga! Amuuuuga!”

This is what the children would shout after school during our long treks homeward in the blistering Accra heat. When emboldened, I would sometimes shout the word with them, and if the spirit – or whatever force guided the actions of the intended target – moved that day, a man would emerge from the bushes and growl. And if he were particularly vexed by our taunting, he would chase us…but only so far. When he got to the junction where the woman sold roasted corn and dried coconut, he would abruptly turn back, as if his progress was impeded by some invisible force-field.  

On one particularly hot day when our incessant taunts were not enough to draw him from his reclusion, our little troupe gave up on our tyrannous mission and trudged to our houses. After weeks of carrying on with this shameful behavior, curiosity finally caught up with me. What exactly was I participating in, and why?

“What does ‘Amuga’ mean,” I asked the eldest of our band.

“That’s his name,” she replied.

“And how do you know that?”

She shrugged and said that everyone did. They just did.

“And why do we shout his name whenever we get close to him?”

“So that he can chase us,” she scoffed as though I’d asked the dumbest question she’d ever heard.

You see, Amuga was the resident ‘mad man’ of East Cantonments. Dirty and seemingly indestructible, it seemed like every residential area had a mentally infirm man who roamed and ruled their own stretch of road. Each mad man had his own tic. Some were harmless, completely satisfied to sit in solitude under trees staring blankly into the sky or muttering to themselves as they shuffled through the community. Then there were others like the guy in Osu who carried around a Blue Band butter tin filled with his own shit which he’d fling at cars or people who interfered with his day. These poor souls – and their unfortunate existence – informed our understanding of what it means to live with mental illness. This remains largely true today. It is why the conversation around mental health is still shrouded in shame.

I have tried to be open about my own mental health challenges, but as I am undiagnosed there is very little I know. I just know something ain’t right. I have been fortunate to have had enough conversations with my elders, people who have been acquitted with my family from my great grandmother right down to me, to have been warned that mental illness is something that runs in my maternal bloodline. I’ve heard about the bizarre things my great-grandmother used to say and do and witnessed similar behavior in her daughter and granddaughter. It did not make for an easy upbringing. Sometimes I would describe some of the mind games and mental abuse I received from my mother to my husband and half-joking say, “If I ever do this to you or the children, please take me out to the back yard and shoot me in the throat.”

I was only half-joking. Fortunately, I’ve since come to understand that there are less extreme measures that one can take to solve this unique problem, no bullets required!

First, I needed to accept that the struggle with mental health is just like any other ailment one has to overcome or cure in the body. When we catch a cold or develop diabetes, the reactions from our community are usually sympathetic. People offer to bring you chicken noodle soup or make recommendations about what sugar alternatives to incorporate into your meals. When the diagnosis is a mental disorder, people tend to be less willing to engage and get stuck in with you. The stigma leads to isolation, which can often exacerbate the symptoms. I experienced this during the middle of the ongoing pandemic, and while it was cold comfort to read about the thousands of people suffering depression and worsening mental illness due to imposed isolation, it was good to know I was not alone. About two weeks ago, I began to feel like something was off.

“My mental health isn’t doing too great,” I informed my sister during our weekly call.

“Uh oh. What’s going on?”

“I don’t know. I just don’t feel right in my head…”

She affirmed what I was feeling. She didn’t try to fix it. She just acknowledged that my brain wasn’t functioning at optimal levels…and somehow, that made me feel “better”. After a few days, I didn’t feel so sick anymore. And that was that. For now, anyways. I know that I will have another bout of whatever that was in another seven weeks or so.

There is a wealth of literature that talks about inherited traumas passed down from our ancestors that survived the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Personally, I believe that if you can inherit acne and a propensity for high blood pressure, you can most likely carry the genetic code that causes that peculiar trauma to manifest in peculiar ways. That’s the second thing I had to accept, and it’s helped me compartmentalize the bouts of depression, light paranoia and sudden fits of anger that I suppress or succumb to, depending on the day. Again, I am fortunate to have a nuclear family that is sympathetic to my struggles due to the open nature of our relationship.

It is encouraging to see how the global conversation about mental health is changing, moving away from stigma and shame to a more compassionate approach. Unlike in the early 19th century, we are not so quick to throw people (women especially) into sanatoriums because they do not perform to society’s rigid expectations of gender and station. There is a place for medication in treating mental illness and disorders, but I think that what vexes most of us mentally can be pacified with a kind word or a sympathetic ear – what the kids these days are calling “therapy”. We could all do with some.

Over the years, I’ve worked on refining the way I think and talk about mental illness, trying to be more mindful of the type of language I use. Every so often, I think about men like Amuga and what kind of help they might receive that might keep them from becoming homeless and seemingly “mindless” vagrants.

I was never convinced that Amuga was completely “mad”. One equally blistering day when I’d had to stay behind for afternoon classes and had to walk home alone, I came upon him at the corner where he laid in wait for our band of terrorists. We made eye contact, he in his tattered khaki shorts and I in my brown-brown uniform. Perhaps sensing my apprehension, or maybe even recognizing our shared humanity, he did the strangest thing: He lifted his hand in greeting, averted his eyes and went back to studying the dusty earth in front of him.  

I never shouted his name again after that.