Notwithstanding my limited knowledge of the academic nuts and bolts of linguistics, I know that in the Shona language when a human being is described using a noun that belongs to the ‘ri-ma’ noun class, that noun is rarely ever a term of endearment. That class is generally characterised by nouns assigned to inanimate objects and describing a human being with a noun in this class is tantamount to dehumanising them. A noun like ‘benzi’ for instance.
‘Benzi’ is a noun I heard being used in one scene, in the latest film offering from the brilliant Hopewell Chin’ono’s, ‘State of Mind’. ‘State of Mind’ is a documentary which shines a much-needed bright light on issues of mental health in Zimbabwe and I had the privilege of being at its first screening on World Mental Health Day on October 10. The scene I am referring to, is a ‘blink-and-you-will-miss-it’ moment, in which a lady who was praising an innovative mental health intervention being implemented in Zimbabwe described how one can observe visible impact on a ‘benzi’ after they have been through the intervention. This was very telling. Not only is our collective view of mental health condition sufferers one that brands ‘others’ as inanimate, but this view is so entrenched and normalised that even as we speak positively about mental health interventions, we are hard pressed to find more politically correct ways of describing mental health patients other than ‘benzi’.
Zimbabweans have been frequently hailed as a resilient people. A people that can make a plan and carry on. It is a national badge we probably wear with the same honour with which we do the labels of ‘nation with highest literacy rates in Sub-Saharan Africa’ or ‘a peace-loving people’. But are we really resilient? Or have the hardships we have had to endure for nearly two decades and the remedies we have sought to placate the pain, become the causes of an insidious underdiagnosed mental health condition epidemic? ‘State of Mind’, to me, is a window that has the potential to allow us as a people to take a peep into the locked room of our society. The room where children and visitors are kept out of. Where we hide issues that we have no desire to confront.
In a vivid film with candid participants with compelling narratives, Chin’ono takes us into the lived realities of mental health patients, their carers and guardians, and their healthcare providers, to give insight into a host of issues attendant to the mental health phenomenon; the dynamics of relationships between patients and their carers, perceptions of mental health patients concerning their own clinical management and social integration, the inadequacy of human resources for mental health in Zimbabwe, the safety and quality issues in mental healthcare as well as the non-discriminatory nature of mental health illness; which can afflict people of any social standing or professional skill.
Equally relevant as mental health patients to the mental health epidemic discourse, are the support systems behind them – the family members bound to patients by love, loyalty and duty. The documentary affords us glimpses of the dichotomy of compassion and compassion fatigue that can sometimes manifest in the carers and guardians of those afflicted with mental health condition.
It also explores the subtle suggestion that sometimes, people’s mental health conditions and restrictive measures deployed to manage patients, can be used as tools for silencing and suppressing them, by even those that love them. The threat of prolonged institutionalisation for instance, was verbalised in the documentary by one carer to her son, in a moment of raw rage. Patients themselves have their own perceptions of institutionalisation, with one giving a moving account of how it makes him feel to be ‘othered’ either through distinguishing hospital regalia or through isolation from inpatients undergoing treatment for ailments unrelated to mental health. This bit really humanises mental health sufferers as socially aware people with feelings, desirous of acceptance.
The inadequacy of mental healthcare service providers in Zimbabwe is the stuff of horrific fiction and, along with the socio-economic environment in Zimbabwe that has had adverse effects on people’s mental fortitude, needs to be addressed right from policy level.
This inadequacy of mental health service providers is not helped by a prevailing belief that mental health conditions are a manifestation of hostile supernatural forces which can be remedied, not by allopathic medicines, but by divination and related interventions.