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Breakout by patients in Swaziland Press Release

December 15th. 2008

Last week’s break-out by patients from the National Psychiatric Centre in Manzini has served to highlight the plight of those who suffer from mental illnesses, the leader of the Mbabane Mental Health Support Group has said.

Support Group leader, Denise Mortlock, made an appeal to the country’s press to help end stigmatization and to champion the case of the mentally ill in Swaziland. “Mental illness is misunderstood and stigmatized all over the world and the recent stories in the national press shows that this is just as true in Swaziland,” Ms Mortlock, said. “We all need to be aware that mental illness is a disease just like diabetes, cancer or heart-disease.”

Because mental illness affects the brain and nervous system, symptoms can be very varied, unusual and even frightening, she explained.

Worldwide, there is general ignorance about mental illness which has led to stigmatization and a lack of awareness about the seriousness of mental illness – not only by the general public but even by policy makers. As a result, governments discriminate between physical and mental problems and have seriously under-resourced the mental health sector. (Swaziland for example has only one psychiatrist for the entire country.)

To combat this, the World Health Organization (WHO) recently launched the Mental Health Gap Action Programme (mhGAP) in an attempt to improve mental health services – especially in low and middle income countries where, according to WHO, it is not unusual for a mere 1% of the total health budget to be allocated to psychiatric services.

When set against the statistics, this is a woefully inadequate. WHO states, “One in four patients visiting a health service has at least one mental, neurological or behavioural disorder.” Alarmingly, most of these disorders are neither diagnosed nor treated.

This is particularly serious for those who are suffering from a chronic illness such as diabetes or HIV/AIDS since untreated mental illness brings about unhealthy or risky behaviour, non-compliance with prescribed medication, diminished immune functioning, and poor prognosis.

In South Africa, a study found that most people thought mental illness was due to stress or a lack of willpower and not a medical condition. As a result of these negative beliefs and attitudes, patients and families are not willing to seek mental health care and so suffer without the treatment that could help them to become functioning members of society.

“Many people with mental illnesses, if they get treatment, have jobs, families and friends with no sign that they have an illness,” Ms Mortlock stressed.

“On the other hand,” she said, “about 877,000 throughout the world people die by suicide every year; many of these people could be saved by the proper treatment and support.”

“We would appeal to the press to help us to get rid of the negativity and stigma that surrounds mental illness,” Ms Mortlock said. “My belief is that one day we will be able to talk about suicide, depression, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia as openly as we can now talk about HIV/AIDS. Illnesses can be painful but they should not be shameful,” she said.

She went on to say that she understood that the media had not intended to cause upset to those who are living with mental illness and their families but she hoped never to see a repeat of last week’s articles.

According to Ms Mortlock, members of the Mbabane Mental Health Support Group had been very distressed by the sensationalizing pictures of the patients from the Mental Health Centre which appeared on the front pages of both the Times and the Observer. The use of the word “lunatic” and other references which stigmatized the mentally ill had been especially upsetting, she said.

It was also of great concern that the patients were clearly recognisable in the photographs thus violating their right to privacy and confidentiality.

“There is no way that these people could have given their informed consent for their photos to be used given that they are in hospital due to a mental disorder,” she said.

She added that she was sure that the journalists’ code of ethics would take account of the UN Principles for the Protection of Persons with Mental Illness, (GA Resolution 46/119 of 17 December 1991), which declared that “All persons with a mental illness shall be treated with humanity and respect for the inherent dignity of the human person;” and “have the right to protection from economic, sexual and other forms of exploitation, physical or other abuse and degrading treatment.”

Denise Mortlock – Mbabane Mental Health Group


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