Motunrayo Bello: Hearkening to the hushed voice of the mentally ill (30 Days, 30 Voices)

During my literature review on the issues of mental health–before I proceeded with the interviews–I found the statistics and circumstances alarming. Literature suggests that more African and African-Caribbean adults in England are subjected to the ‘heavy-handed’ approach than other minority populations.

Rewind 8 years ago, I was an uncertain English Undergraduate student wandering the overcrowded corridors of the English Department at the University of Lagos, Nigeria.  At the time I thought that trying to decide whether to be a ‘language’ or ‘literature’ major would be the most crucial decision I’d ever make. Until, a year ago, when I found myself faced with the decision to either invite 10 recovering mentally ill individuals to participate in my Postgraduate health and development research at the University of Leeds, England or let the health providers do the talking. Well, I chose to hear their voices. And my encounters and findings completely changed my misconceptions of mental illnesses.  In fact the entire experience changed my life.

My navigation to study English at University was/is my relentless passion for writing. I had spent most of my childhood rewriting daily newspapers into my own narratives and reading them to my father whilst he had his Saturday morning tea. However, it wasn’t until far along my life journey with God that I knew I wasn’t just supposed to dance to the beat of literature, not that this isn’t awesome enough, but that He had aligned-with His own desire to give voice to the ‘voiceless’-my passage from that little girl bent over writing zealously for her father to the grown woman now hungry for purpose.

Yes purpose. Purpose has driven me at different times to calibrate and rediscover. Just a few weeks ago, I found an old story I’d written for my undergraduate creative writing class at the University. I called it Lavender. A title/name which is a complete paradox to the main character; a mentally ill homeless Nigerian woman whose story one of my best friends felt drawn to. I do understand we don’t call them the ‘homeless’ in the context of Nigeria; we have various terms which we inadvertently or otherwise use to stigmatise the mentally ill in our societies; which is fine, when we rarely know them. When they are but a shadow we cannot really see or a face hidden behind a statistic.

Even the other ‘normal’ characters in ‘Lavender’ weren’t any different. They called her several names as they drove or walked past her gaunt figure in the streets. Her body fatigued from moving her torn bags full of empty cans and tattered clothes from one corner of the street to another.  After years of stealthily watching her husband and her daughter from afar as they drove through the same route every morning and evening, she decided to move closer to where she once called home. And though she feels ‘reduced’ to the ‘battle’ in her mind she could still somehow see herself as James’ wife and Helen’s mother, except that Helen never knew her. It was for Helen’s sake, they locked her away in that pitiful place. They wanted to protect her, they’d said.  And that’s why James hasn’t come to see her. Maybe he’s ashamed. Or maybe he doesn’t want to face Helen’s questions. Nonetheless it makes her smile every night when she sneaks to his window to watch him continue his painting. A painting of her. The vibrancy she once was. Oh who she was! She knows James still loves her, but if he knows she fled, they’ll make him take her back there…

I would love to completely dive into the dynamics of what this story represents and relive what I saw and felt as I wrote it, however, I mention it now because when I found the story on my old computer, it struck me just as it did the first time I re-read it to a junior creative writing class at University. Hence, I began to understand again my navigation towards researching the issue of Mental Health amongst Africans and Afro-Caribbean people in England. It was a research into the myriad of societal/religious/gender/ cultural/contextual/self-constructed barriers around the issue of Mental Health, which we carry with us regardless of our ethnic backgrounds and current settings.

During my literature review on the issues of mental health–before I proceeded with the interviews–I found the statistics and circumstances alarming. Literature suggests that more African and African-Caribbean adults in England are subjected to the ‘heavy-handed’ approach than other minority populations. In other words, they are misunderstood, less likely given the options of talking therapies, and more likely to be imprisoned, hospitalised, over-diagnosed, excessively medicated, and ostracised. However, as I read further, and even remembered, I found that it isn’t any different in our own home countries and societies. We can be quickly inclined to ‘exclude’ men and women who suffer from mental illnesses and confine them to our few psychiatric hospitals, many of which are unkempt, under-staffed and low on medications.

My research respondents really wanted me, as well as the rest of us, to understand that ‘mental illness’ isn’t some elephant in the room. It all begins with a thought. One incoherent thought. One unlikely thought. A feeling of despondency birthed from endless relational and identity issues. A feeling of aloneness and heaviness. Uncertainties. Anger. Pain. Seclusion. All holes that could tow just about anybody in.

However, I am no expert. And I suppose I can say I’ve never suffered from a mental illness, simply because I’ve never been strapped to a bed, confined to a room, or lived in the streets. But I dare say that if we all really thought about it, at one point or another, we’ve all had a benign experience of restraint, a depressing thought, some sleepless nights, a few agonising days. However, the difference is that somehow we don’t stay in that ‘state of mind’. And for those who have and do, I know it is not by choice. It just takes over.

I look forward to the world knowing of the 10 amazing men and women I sat with a year ago. Like many out there-in our homes, in our streets, at that busy bus garage, in that car park-they are fighting tooth and nail to get their lives back. They live everyday trying, hoping to remind themselves of who they once were and who they could be. I bet if we listened in. If we really listened in, they probably wouldn’t ask to be invited into our homes, much less sit at our dinner tables and certainly not get a ride in our cars. They would ask…“When I am healing. When I am back on my feet, will you really let me back in? Really? No stares. No bizarre glares. No looks of mistrust. No scoffs. No jeers. Will you just allow me-piece by piece- get back all that was taken from me? Will you?”


About the author: Motunrayo is a  relentless optimist with a vision to give voice to the voiceless, she works as a freelance researcher for the World Health Organisation Bulletin, and now a part of the communications team at the Wellbeing Foundation Africa, where every day brings an exciting new opportunity to be the voice of women and children in Africa.


Op-ed pieces and contributions are the opinions of the writers only and do not represent the opinions of Y!/YNaija.

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Comments (8)

  1. A message for us all. Thanks for taking out the time to write this piece, Motunrayo. God bless you heart.

  2. Article is a masterpiece; it is a reflection of hardwork and passion on every activity embarked upon; congrats and keep it up

  3. A wonderful and thought provoking piece on a very sensitive topic. I am guilty of wondering about the mentally ill and/or homeless and passing judgement instead of a helping hand. It is hard to envision solutions without engaging, and it is the engagement which leads to understanding and resolution that we run from.

  4. Beautifully put into one….this article made me reflect on some life experiences.. Thanks for this! and cant wait to read about your convo with the 10 Amazing people.

  5. I greatly admire how this was written. Very empathetic but not too condescending or patronizing.

  6. Beautifull written. We as people need to be more compassionate towards them.

    You have not written a medical piece but you have written the article with sensitivity and examined it very humanly.

  7. Fantastic read. My eyes watered towards the end. A very brave topic to take on, handled delicately and without cliche. Good work.

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