—By Mercy Adhiambo
On Wednesday, I attended a meeting at the Oklahoma Capitol to listen to discussions about funding mental health.
It was my first assignment since I came to The Oklahoman as a journalism fellow from Kenya. I was shadowing my mentor to see how such deliberations are held, and later to do a comparative analysis on how it differs from my country.
In my mind, I pictured it as a meeting where policymakers discuss figures, read winding documents and then debate loudly without making a resolution.
I was ready for chaos.
At least that is what my experience as a journalist in my country had taught me to expect. What I didn’t know was that I was going to be confronted with realities that not only shattered me, but also made me think about the universality of mental conditions.
It was also very personal to me.
Four years ago, my cousin died by suicide.
I was asleep when my mother called me and whispered that my 19-year-old cousin was dead.
“The devil entered her and she hanged herself…”
That is how my mother described it. She could not find another way to explain why a young woman who had a brilliant life ahead of her would lock herself inside her father’s cowshed and, in one stroke of finality, end her own life.
It had to be something beyond human understanding. Something buried deep inside religion: the devil.
Before her death, my cousin had gone through a lot of turbulence. She was always seen as a problematic child. During school holidays, when we visited my grandmother, Irene would often get a beating for not being able to “sit still.”
It was as if something kept whispering to her that she needed to move about. I cannot count the number of times she wandered away and got lost. My aunt, her mother, would give her a lashing for being difficult. She would get frustrated when people openly pointed out that she wasn’t disciplining her child.
Then there were those moments when my cousin would zone out and sit in silence – in her own world where nothing mattered.
Once, when she was about 13, she got so moody and irritable. She spent most of that day seated under a tree by the lake that overlooked my grandmother’s house. She defiantly played with the beads on her neck and remained mute when people talked to her.
That evening, my grandmother called her church pastor to come and pray for her.
“Something is in her…,” my grandmother constantly said.
Nobody knew what it was – but it was obvious that she was facing things bigger than herself.
Her father never spared the rod. He was a disciplinarian who believed in using the good ol’ cane.
I will never forget the day Irene came home, having been suspended from high school after getting into a fight with her chemistry teacher.
Her father shook in rage. He angrily asked her what was troubling her. My cousin’s gaze never left the floor. Her father lunged toward her and rained blows on her so hard that the table that stood between them broke.
Something was definitely inside my cousin. That something, it seems, was mental illness.
Sometimes, she would act like she was really sorry for the things she did and how they affected her family. She would even cook for the family and, just when her family was getting used to her change, her erratic behaviors would emerge like strong waves and overpower her.
She was like a yo-yo being tossed about – one time on a high, then another on an extreme low.
I look back and realize that she was suffering from a mental health issue that somehow controlled her life – and sadly led to her demise.
Unfortunately, she lived in a society where mental illness is a taboo topic. Nobody discusses it. Nobody acknowledges it. Nobody believes that it exists. And nobody wants to associate with people who show signs of mental illness.
In Kenya, for instance, policymakers rarely mention mental illness in detail when the health budget is read. Perhaps, they feel it is nonexistent, or better left untouched. And families have to deal with the effects of a subject that is mostly whispered about.
During the mental health lobbying day at the Capitol, I listened to Cathy Costello, wife of slain Labor Commissioner Mark Costello, talk about her son, Christian. Cathy broke down when she tried to explain the burden and pain that comes with trying to collect the scattered pieces that remain when mental illness sneaks in and steals the thoughts and existence of someone you love.
“My son lived in his own reality – that of sorrow and pain,” she said, while narrating how Christian’s brain disease eventually took over and drove him to kill his own father, her husband and partner of 30 years.
She reinforced the need to talk about mental health issues and find solutions that ensure those who are diagnosed with mental illnesses can find ways to get help.
It was chilling. It was real. And it was eye-opening.
She represented many families – even the ones in my country who still refuse to openly acknowledge the existence of mental illness and prefer to delicately skirt around it or blame things like generational curses and lack of proper upbringing, instead of finding ways of ensuring people with mental health issues get proper diagnosis and treatment so that they can integrate into society.
As Cathy spoke, I was mentally transported to my aunt who was silenced when her daughter died by suicide.
Traditions do not allow people to mourn openly for those who take their own lives. It is taboo.
On Irene’s burial day, I watched as my aunt tried to contain her emotions. Her eyes never left the casket where her little girl lay. Not a single tear fell from her eyes when Irene was finally lowered to the small grave that had been dug outside the compound. Irene was an outcast.
Last year, when I visited my aunt, she told me: “Anytime I hear a thud sound, I remember how the police cut the cord that held Irene’s neck, and she fell lifelessly on the floor. I wanted to scream, but you don’t cry over such [a] shameful death.”
I felt so sorry for her. Her pain solidified that of others who battle with what remains.
In my interview with Carrie Slatton-Hodges, a deputy commissioner at the Oklahoma Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services, she reinforced the need for everyone to embrace the idea that people with mental illnesses can function normally if they have early access to proper treatment and intervention.
“They need to be helped, not condemned,” Slatton-Hodges said. “They can only see hope if the stigma and prejudice is stopped.”
By the time I was leaving the Capitol, I wished someone had spoken these words to my cousin before she convinced herself that what was happening inside her could only be silenced by one ultimate end.
For more on Mercy’s experiences as a health reporter click here.
For more on the fellow’s interaction with journalism students at the University of Missouri click here.