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 genetic predisposition, chemical imbalance in the brain, stress and exposure to severe trauma. Mental illness includes disorders such as anxiety, 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.)