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Mental illness in the Ethiopian community

By Hiyawkal Gizachew

In Ethiopia, counselors are seen as helpers for “crazy” people. When most people in Ethiopia are faced with a problem, they tend to talk to their family members, neighbors, friends, or they go to church to talk to the priests and pray about it. Also, traditional healing plays a big role. In Ethiopia mental health issues are not talked about, or if it is brought up, it is always associated with “mad people” who walk around half naked on the street and talk to themselves. Mental illness is also seen to have supernatural causes such as spirit possession; people with mental illness are seen as violent and will never recover. These are myths that have a part of Ethiopian culture today. As a result, people don’t seek professional help, whether they are experiencing minor or major mental illness.

This raises a question, what is mental illness is? Do we know what causes it? People with mental illness experience problems in the way they think, feel or behave to the point that these despair feelings, thinking and behavior interfere with their daily functioning. As a result, their relationship with family and friends are affected, as well as their employment. It is essential for us to understand that having a mental illness is no one’s fault. According to experts in the field, there are many factors that may cause a mental illness, such as a {www:genetic predisposition}, chemical imbalance in the brain, stress and exposure to severe trauma. Mental illness includes disorders such as anxiety, {www:post-traumatic stress disorder}, depression, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

When major negative life events occurs such as losing loved ones, divorce, an accident, or serious prolonged problems such as substance abuse or domestic violence, coping becomes progressively more difficult, and resulting distress begins to impair one’s daily functioning and can cause sleep disturbances, appetite changes, energy level changes and intrusive thoughts.

It is unfortunate that mental illness is running rampant within Ethiopian community. It is an issue no one is addressing. People are suffering from severe depression, the number of young adult committing suicide is increasing, some are abusing substance to cover up what they are feeling while other are showing it in their aggressive and violent behavior. Divorce, domestic violence, parent-child conflict, and crime are increasing. In a culture where mental illness is associated with “madness,” it is not shocking that Ethiopians don’t seek help. Mental illness is a major problem in our community that needs to be addressed by everyone including, youth, adults and the elderly. Mental illness doesn’t discriminate by age, gender, socioeconomic status, or education level. We need to come together to educate and jointly fight the stigma that is holding us back from seeking professional help.

(Hiyawkal Gizachew, a Mental Health Counselor with the Northern Virginia Family Service, can be reached at [email protected])

17 thoughts on “Mental illness in the Ethiopian community

  1. A well-written article that addresses one of the important issues that has plagued our community for years. I salute you for raising this issue and creating awareness of the need to seek professional help in order to effectively address mental health issues in our community. Thank you very much!

  2. I think this is a great article that explains the cause of mental illness and it will give a great understanding for our community considering that we (most Ethiopian) cover our problems and we don’t tend to seek help compare to others. Thank you for sharing this information and I think it’s an eye opening for all of us!!

  3. this is a common problem in Diaspora Ethiopians. Mental illness is the result of stress drived from economic difficulties. Most Ethiopian men do not generate enough income to support a family, that in turn weighs on them and results in having to push life on their own, which is a precursor to mental stress followed by full blown mental illness.

  4. Dear Hiyawkal,
    Thank you for taking the initiative to teach us about mental illness and the social stigma associated with the ailment. I also saw a short article recently supported by few pictures indicating that 15% of our population is afflicted with the disease. The issue is personal for me because I have a brother that is schizophrenic. Now he is very normal, thanks God. But aside from the drug treatment that he was taking, what brought my brother to normalcy was the collective support that he received from the family. Aside from the drug treatment, the support that they need from their family is long term. Unfortunately, most of the mentally ill that we see on the streets are alraedy abandoned by the family. My question for you is, how can we help the many that are in desperate need without a family?

    HG replies:

    Yes, strong support system is a key. However, for people who might not have family support system or other kind of support system, the worker should be able to link the client to community resources such as support group, community services and other resources they might help the client.

  5. The main reason for why the Ethiopian People are suffering increasingly from severe depression, the number of young adult committing suicide is increasing, some are abusing substance to cover up what they are feeling while other are showing it in their aggressive and violent behavior , geting Divorce, acting up in domestic violence, parent-child conflict and also numerous crimes are increasing is the socio-economic and political condition in Ethiopia .

    The fake religious leaders , business men and political leaders are the cause for createing confusion , mistrust , moral decay which lead to mental illness among all generations of Ethiopia currnetly.

  6. Yes, mental illness exists in Ethiopian community here in the Diaspora just like in any other new community. The rest of the anecdotal report above is only exaggeration and it is based on unfounded evidence. Let us not become Weyane like by exaggerating facts. Remember, I am not saying that the person is Weyane!

  7. I do belive there is no better cure for mental illness than friends family and religious leaders encouragment and comfort,I do not belive in the institutional or medical treatment of depression

  8. Instead of in·sen·si·tive·ly lumping everybody who is not on the same page as crazies, it would give humane and dignified face for the unfortunate if we used proven diagnosed cases by their appropriate names such as bi-polar (manic depression) or schizophrenia and most of all show empathy and support. Those choices of professional labels distinguish between a higher society and a lower ones. The taboo of being labeled as nutcase, crazy and the like could be devastating for the already incapacitated, its as usual a cruelly inhuman and poisonous salvo thrown by the backwards and ignorant. Good article.

  9. Do You Suffer From Bad Luck
    Are you one of those people who are always suffering setbacks?
    by Adrian Savage

    Does little ever seem to go right for you? Are you dogged by constant instances of sheer bad luck? Do you sometimes feel that the universe is out to get you? Let me let you into a secret: your luck is no worse—and no better—than anyone else’s. It just feels that way. Better, still, there are two simple things you can do which will reverse your feelings of being unlucky. Stop believing that what happens in your life is down to the vagaries of luck, destiny, supernatural forces, malevolent other people, or anything else outside your self. Psychologists call this “external locus of control.” It’s a kind of fatalism, where people believe that they can do little or nothing personally to change their lives. Because of this, they either merely hope for the best, focus on trying to change their luck by various kinds of superstition, or submit passively to whatever comes—while complaining that it doesn’t match their hopes. Most successful people take the opposite view. They have “internal locus of control.” They believe that what happens in their life is nearly all down to them; and that even when chance events occur, what is important is not the event itself, but how you respond to it. This makes them pro-active, engaged, ready to try new things, and keen to find the means to change whatever in their lives they don’t like. They aren’t fatalistic and they don’t blame bad luck for what isn’t right in their world. They look for a way to make things better. Are they luckier than the others? Of course not. Luck is random—that’s what chance means—so they are just as likely to suffer setbacks as anyone else. What’s different is their response. When things go wrong, they quickly look for ways to put them right. They don’t whine, pity themselves, or complain about “bad luck.” They try to learn from what happened to avoid or correct it next time and get on with living their life as best they can. No one is habitually luckier or unluckier than anyone else. It may seem so, over the short term (Random events often come in groups, just as random numbers often lie close together for several instances—which is why gamblers tend to see patterns where none exist). When you take a longer perspective, random chance is just . . . random. Yet those who feel that they are less lucky, typically pay far more attention to short-term instances of bad luck, convincing themselves of the correctness of their belief. Your locus of control isn’t genetic. You learned it somehow. If it isn’t working for you, change it. Remember that whatever you pay attention to grows in your mind. If you focus on what’s going wrong in your life—especially if you see it as “bad luck” you can do nothing about—it will seem blacker and more malevolent. In a short time, you’ll become so convinced that everything is against you that you’ll notice more and more instances where this appears to be true. As a result, you will almost certainly stop trying, convinced that nothing you can do will improve your prospects. Fatalism feeds on itself, until people become passive “victims” of life’s blows. The “losers” in life are those who are convinced they will fail before they start anything; sure that their “bad luck” will ruin any prospects of success. They rarely notice that the true reasons for their failure are ignorance, laziness, lack of skill, lack of forethought, or just plain foolishness—all of which they could do something to correct, if only they would stop blaming other people or “bad luck” for their personal deficiencies. Your attention is under your control. Send it where you want it to go. Starve the negative thoughts until they die. To improve your fortune, first decide that what happens is nearly always down to you; then try focusing on what works and what turns out well, not the bad stuff. Your “fate” really does depend on the choices that you make. When random events happen, as they always will, do you choose to try to turn them to your advantage . . . or just complain about them? Thomas Jefferson is said to have used these words: “I’m a great believer in luck and I find the harder I work, the more I have of it.” Ralph Waldo Emerson said: “Shallow men believe in luck. Strong men believe in cause and effect.” Do you suffer from bad luck? Here’s how to improve your fortune Your luck, in the end, is pretty much what you choose it to be.

  10. Good and timely article. Thanks!

    Intense social change and fast paced transformations that mixes up roles, statuses, expectations, visions, missions, etc. human pattern of established world views can cause confusions and disorders both in individuals, communities and societies.

    We need transformational and visionary leaders be it in politics, medicine, science, social and community studies, etc. who show the roads, set the goals, march the roads and sing the songs! Every era needs its own prophets just like the eras of Jesus, Mohammad, Gautama Buddha,Mosses, etc. but not necessarily in religious terms even though spirituality can be curative too.

    However every misbehavior and feelings depression are not necessarily mental illness. It is human to have periods of depression as well as absence of depression. Mental problems and mental health issues are generally fraught with taboos in most cultures and less in western cultures. Seeking help, determining the nature of the problem and receiving both counseling and medication may help a great lot and save humans from unnecessary utter self and or other destruction. None judgmental family and community positive and understanding support is absolutely essential.

    To be human is to help humans completely humanly with out judging or labeling the person or persons in need of assistance. To help humans humanly in a nonjudgmental and non prejudiced empathic approach regardless of religion, region, color, ethnicity, etc. diversities might be a scarce commodity among Ethiopians.

    “When written in Chinese, the word “crisis” is composed of two characters. One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.” – John F. Kennedy

    So, we need humans who can show other humans all the possible opportunities both in themselves as well as in the environment.

  11. It is very important that you raise such issues.
    One of the reasons it reached to this extent is because what all almost all want to talk is about stereotypical politics only.
    One of the main reasons is lack of good governance and and savage capitalism.

  12. There is so much benefit in USA for people who are mentally ill. Most psych wards refer their patients to a housing where they can live free and get professional help as needed. Being mentally ill in USA is not same as being mentally ill in Ethiopia since there is no housing and follow up case management in Ethiopia after patients leave the psych ward. In USA patients are more encouraged to join society , this was done after President Ronald Regan opened the doors of mental institutions and ordered MOST PATINENTS to join society which helped many regain their mental health. So for anyone who is in doubt about their mental health status it will be wise to visit a professional.

  13. This is a good article. Thank you Mr. Hiyawkal and ER.

    We need more such articles that address issues that may not be too sexy for many, hence the low coverage in media, but nevertheless are real problems our society faces on a daily basis.

    While I agree that stigma is one problem that needs to be addressed, I doubt if there are professional that can be consulted during such ordeals. I am not saying if there are enough professionals, but if there are after all. It seems to me that there exists stigma in the professional society as well not to choose this profession. Therefore, there needs to be a campaign to increase the professional base of persons who treat patients, not just at doctors level but at lower levels as well.

    Keep up the good work.


  14. well first of all ethiopians are too stupid to even get help they belive that god can cure everything if god could cure everything there wouldn’t be a such thing as phychiatrist or SSRIs everyone that was mentally ill or had a mental illness would go too church or to there priest and get baptist. Till till this day ethiopians like my parents belive that schizophrenia and bipolar disorder can be cured by “holy water” and they actually want to waste 6,000 dollars on a plane ticket just to get some “holy water”. smh just wait until i get my book ‘orthomolecular medicine for schizophrenia’ by abram hoffer and i will cure my self some day you ethiopians will working for me

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