My experiences with the mental health stigma in Ethiopia

When I went to Ethiopia in 2015 to celebrate my uncle graduating from college, I remember watching a story about a woman and her child on the government-run state news.

They both suffered from an unnamed mental illness and they were missing. There was a reward for finding the two.

However, it wasn’t the story itself that intrigued me, but rather the words the news anchors used to refer to the missing people. They were called “insane” and “crazy” rather than “mentally ill,” “disabled” or any other formal diagnosis.

I was born in St. Paul and raised by Ethiopian parents, a dad from Addis Ababa and a mom from Jijiga, the biggest city in the Ogaden desert. At 14, I took my third trip back to Ethiopia. I was definitely expecting blue vans, three-wheeled Bajaj motorcycles and the constant smell of cooking by fire. What I didn’t expect was the way people talked about mental illness.

On that same trip, my family went to a special Orthodox Christian church. It was this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see a famous priest.

We got in one of the mini-buses, heading to this outdoor church near the border of Addis Ababa, the capital city. People were selling necklaces that had black string with a small wooden cross dangling. My grandmother bought us one each, and we found an open space where we could do our normal prayer.

I started to notice a difference between our church back home and this one when I saw a small section of people in the front being segregated from the rest of the people. They were “possessed.” They were crying, screaming, fainting, getting sick and yelling at the deacons. The deacons hit them with this big necklace of beads. Then the priest started bringing the possessed people on stage one by one.

One person had stolen his family and friends’ money. Another person was a local actor suffering from drug abuse. Their stories made them sound like characters in movies. It was very foreign to me. My siblings and I were puzzled, but everybody else just sat in silence. Shaking their heads. Tearing up. Praying for the demonic spirits to leave the victims’ bodies and to better themselves as people.

From the far left of the church, I wondered if they were getting help from a doctor or a therapist like I normally would see in the U.S.

An estimated 15 percent of Ethiopian people are affected by major mental illnesses or substance abuse disorders, according to a 2016 article by the World Health Organization. Yet suffering from mental illness in the country has been stigmatized.

These experiences have shown me that different cultures have additional barriers in coming forward with their struggles with mental illness. In all cultures, people struggle with mental illnesses and the stigma of dealing with them or talking about them. And in some cultures, people have extra barriers, whether it’s going to church to go through an exorcism, using cultural remedies or resorting to witchcraft.

We need to raise awareness about treating mental illness in these communities that might have these additional barriers, and understand how we can learn from the ways each culture treats mental illness.