#KWIBUKA20: Let's Talk Mental Health
This year marks the 20th commemoration of the Rwandan genocide. For the rest of the world, 20 years is a long time, but for Rwandans, 20 years seems like just yesterday! Over the course of 100 days from April 6 to mid-july 1994 about 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were massacred in the most horrific ways. 20 years later, the survivors of this genocide are still living with the memories of violent attacks, massacres and rape. They are struggling to come to terms with the loss of family members, loved one, and some of them have the physical reminders of that dark period of our history through scars, mutilated bodies or HIV infections. For most of them, being alive feels like a crime, they carry so much guilt in their hearts, life is a misery Rwandans have in the past 20 years made tremendous strides to rebuild their country, and have exceeded expectations. The infrastructural, political and economic development have moved the country from what some were ready to label a failed state in 1994, to one of the fastest growing economies on the continent. Its people have worked tirelessly to unite and rebuild the country, a testament of the resilience of a people who have experienced so much suffering. It is this resilience that has helped us overcome numerous obstacles and get the country to where it is today. However despite the advantages to be found in our resilient nature, it has been found to also hide a lot of pain and suffering. In the Rwandan culture we are taught at an early age to hide our emotions and discouraged from expressing any form of negative or strong emotions. Many survivors have learned to put on a mask. Behind that mask hides suffering and pain that can only be understood by the individual himself.
Rwandans are often reminded to be strong, hold their heads high and as they say in Kinyarwanda ‘’kwihangana’’. Every April since 1994, we commemorate the genocide and survivors all around the world are reminded of what they have endured. Even after 20 years and the exposure to trauma, there is one aspect that a lot of Rwandans are still not comfortable talking about and is surrounded with stigma. This is mental health! In April, survivors are allowed to show their emotions but need to put on that mask again after the commemoration because showing it would show weakness or they are often reminded that their suffering is not granted as there is others that had it worse. This years commemoration themes are evolving around reconciliation and renewal. How is this possible if a lot of Rwandans themselves have not initiated some kind of reconciliation with their own suffering? A lot of survivors find themselves alone with their dark memories, intense nightmares, insomnia, depression, anxiety, anger, feeling of hopelessness, suicidal thoughts and flashbacks. Their inability to talk about their emotions, seek resources and help have often left them with severe emotional, behavioural and physical problems. From alcoholism, self-harm, poverty, family conflicts, relationship difficulties, legal problems and many other psychosocial issues.
Rwanda has recognized the necessity of mental health program to help Rwandans post-genocide. There are more and more resources but not enough for the need. There are still a lot of taboos preventing a lot of Rwandans to talk about their mental health mostly due to being afraid of the judgement or lack of understanding of it. As a community we need to start acknowledging this issue, if not addressed, mental health issues will continue to detrimental for our brothers and sisters suffering in silence and even to ourselves as a community. The 1994 Rwandan genocide can never be forgotten but how can one cope in a healthy way with life post-genocide? We as a community can start by being aware and comfortable with the mental health and mental illness concept. Many people for example are not aware that Mental illness is the leading cause of disability worldwide and that if untreated can have repercussion of one’s quality of life.
Let’s briefly understand what is mental health and mental illness. According to the World health organization (WHO), mental health is an integral part of health; indeed, there is no health without mental health. Mental health is more than the absence of mental disorders. It is a state of well-being in which an individual realizes his or her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.
Mental illnesses are characterized by alterations in thinking; mood or behaviour associated with significant distress and impaired functioning. Mental illness arises from a complex interaction of genetic, biological, personality and environmental factors. Mental illnesses affects people of all ages, education levels, income levels and culture (Public health agency of Canada).
Our community was greatly affected by the genocide and exposure to so many traumatic events that left so many children, women and men having to live with haunting memories and who have to find ways to cope with life and post genocide scars.
We need to start acknowledging mental health as an integral part of our health and well-being. Mental illness can affect everybody. We need to understand it to help our brothers, sisters and even ourselves. We need to start talking about it to ensure that no one is left suffering alone and that everyone gets the support they need to help them cope with life. There is help, there is assistance, there are resources and this need to be put forward. Learn about mental health, mental illnesses and its resources. Understanding it better is the first step to break the taboo and stigma around it. Let's demystify mental health, it affects all of us either directly, through our family members or community and we can no longer seat around and pretend that it doesn't exist.
Different Rwandan agencies have been put in place to help its civilians with mental health and several psychosocial issues that arises as a direct impact from the genocide. For those living across the world and the wider Tap Magazine audience, we wanted to provide you a few useful links (check below) on global mental health and various tools and resources available. Share the message...
Mental Health First Aid
Centre For Global Mental Health
Mental Health Community
Artice by Diane Rudakenga
Diane has a bachelor degree (B.Sc.) in psychology & psychoeducation. She works in disability management and is an active member of CARY Ottawa.
Editing by; Louise Umutoni