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BURINI: Teach children about mental disorders



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One of my favourite uncles and arguably the smartest men I had the pleasure of being directly associated with had a mental disorder. At a young age, my mum took the time to explain uncle wasn’t well but once he had his medication he would be lucid and you’d be none the wiser. But whether he was lucid or not, I enjoyed spending time with my uncle. As far as I can remember, he was always nice to me, he knew who I was and called me by nickname. He was a Kiswahili teacher and when he was lucid he helped me with my assignments.

My attitude towards him almost changed when some children in the neighbourhood saw him and starting calling him names and laughing. My uncle’s mental disorder was not deafening or blinding. He saw those children and heard what they said. Looking back I wonder whether this affected him. I was greatly offended and insulted by their words and wished they knew the uncle that I know. His mental state did not mean he wasn’t human, or that he was stupid, illiterate or completely removed from himself. He was always in there.

They didn’t understand why you would invite him in the house, feed him what you ate and generally cared for him. Having understood he was unwell, there was no reason why I wouldn’t wait on him. His mental disorder was an illness like any other; the symptoms just happened to manifest in his personality.

But my stance remained that this was my uncle who loved me and I loved him. I waited on him hand and foot on his good and bad days and it didn’t matter that people around me thought less of him.

In hindsight, how different would those children’s attitude be if they had mental health education? It is easy to laugh off what you don’t understand due to lack of knowledge. Once you are informed, it’s highly unlikely you would make light of mental health disorders.

We teach children everything else, including sexual education, albeit reluctantly, yet mental health has remained neglected. In recent times, adults are embracing mental health wellbeing by speaking about depression, bipolar disorder and suicide. While this is progress, it has left out children who remain aloof about mental health carrying around the stigma passed down from the previous generations. We need to engage children in these discussions if we are intent on addressing mental health holistically.

Hard as it is to admit, there are also mental health disorders that affect children. Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder, anxiety, conduct disorder and the list goes on. If children are ill informed about mental disorders they become bullies to those they do not consider to be normal or one of them. It is no wonder parents resort to hiding their children away from the public to protect them from abuse. There is no harm in making children aware of mental illnesses that affect their peers. Some children also have parents, siblings and relatives who suffer from mental illnesses. Offering them insight into what they are experiencing will go a long way in enabling them to make peace with their situation.

Mental health cannot be treated as an adult issue to the exclusion of children. If we are going to heal as a nation, children must be educated on mental disorders and those affected treated.

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