Disability and Mental Health: A Burden too Heavy to Bear

By Georgina Mumba

About month ago, I learnt with shock and deep sadness that a friend from high school had died of suspected suicide. Sad as this news was, the saddest part is the fact that Scott (out of respect for the victim this is not the real name) could hardly do much on his own, physically that is. The simple truth is, if Scott died of suicide it certainly was assisted suicide. I am no legal expert but I do know in Zambia, suicide is illegal subsequently assisted suicide must be equally illegal. So when I hear of a suicide of someone who can hardly do much independently, physically I must stress, my first reaction is to scream murder. But that is the easy part. The hard part is finding out the real reason behind this tragedy and who are the real victims and perpetrators? I ask so because I have come to learn when it comes to matters of living with a life-long challenge such a disability and caring for such an individual nothing is in black and white.

It is not always true that because someone cannot physically and independently commit suicide then they cannot consciously elect to die. So it would be presumptuous of me to scream murder when Scott could have genuinely elected to be assisted to die after all the guy was of a very sound mind. However, my bone of contention is not if he did or did not elect to die but why he did so? And why did those that assisted him agree with him, painful as I can imagine it could have been, if it was done out of compassion?

The mortality rate, among young Zambians with disabilities, due to suicides (assisted or not) and/or depression is getting alarmingly high. And the simple question is why? A number of friends I met in school, many with challenging physical disabilities but borne with such resilience and a cheerful heart, are now victims of suicides and/or depression related deaths. And I wonder how within a few years of being out of school such cheerful and resilient people can suddenly fall victim to suicide and/or depression? I am not here to advocate for institutionalization of persons with disabilities but I do know many are dying just a few years out of school. Obviously, other than their families, the main support system persons with disabilities have in our midst at the moment are special schools. Beyond these institutions life with a disability becomes extremely harsh both for the directly and indirectly affected.

At the time of his death, Scott had successfully completed high school but was later just confined home doing nothing. Scott needed care with most of his physical needs something that was provided for by the school during his studies. I can imagine after high school, to have this kind of care especially in a tertiary

institution his family must have had to either provide it themselves or pay for it. Unfortunately, his family struggled financially so hopes of supporting him through tertiary studies, plus his special needs, were obviously bleak.

And the story is the same with all the other friends and colleagues I have since lost to suicide and/or depression related deaths. Completed high school, bleak possibilities of further studies, no possibilities of a job as a result and the next thing is so and so is dead.

There are documented challenges with persons with disabilities furthering their studies and in the absence of such opportunities it becomes even harder for them to find employment and ultimately independently sustain themselves. Obviously these are multi-layered problems requiring multi-layered solutions.

However, one thing is for sure, and that is mental health is a real challenge for persons with disabilities as they grapple with the challenges of their impairments, some of which include health complications, and issues of disability. Stigma, exclusion, isolation, abuse etc are challenges that are sometimes more compounded in our homes/communities than in institutions where persons with disabilities do not only have each other for support but also sometimes have access to professional help.

So as family, friends, church members etc, what are we doing to help fight the challenge of mental health among our colleagues who have more than a fair share of struggles to deal with? How involved are we with those providing care so that they do not feel their burden is too heavy to bear to the world and in their despair elect to do the unthinkable?

It is no secret that some husbands leave their spouses when a disabled child is born; aspiring spouses threaten to leave if the spouse to be is a primary caretaker of a child/person with a disability hence forcing some mothers to dump their disabled children with their grandparents or sometimes do the unthinkable; some families hardly make any efforts (physical or otherwise) to incorporate needs of their disabled members even after living with such a person for years; community members hardly make any efforts to check in with their neighbours on how they can help even for an hour or just engage with the disabled member of the community; some friends are too busy climbing their socio-economic ladders to pay attention to their colleagues yearning for just a hello….and the list is endless.

The bottom line is we are all part of the problem until we start being part of the solution.

The solution is in inclusive government systems as well as in sustained community engagement with the directly and indirectly afflicted. And before we choose to just see the first part of the previous sentence, the government is made up of people living in communities, communities that are allowing people to do the unthinkable because they feel all alone, hopeless, dejected, etc.

We can all be part of the solution if we elect that, if a person has to elect to die, it shall not be due to our neglect. Spare a thought. Lend a hand. Save a life.

By Georgina Mumba (Zambia 2015)



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