As mental illness continues to challenge society, government institutions and private citizens are contributing to possible remedies. Even when daunted by mistaken public awareness and infrastructure shortages, the use of art is lending a hand in the fight against the growing public health challenge, writes EBR’s Trualem Asmare, where she finds dedicated individuals tackling the issue with their artistic hands and minds.
On October 29, 2021, the hall of the National Theater was filled with people from various walks of life. This time, however, it was not for a full theatrical event. It was art and mental health that brought people together. The event, organized by St. Amanuel General Hospital (SAGH), was meant to create awareness of the growing challenges of mental health in the city as well as nationwide. Attendees were seen throwing hands to grab brochures being handed out by the organizers. The little infographic pamphlet paints a rather grim picture.
With the objective of creating awareness among the public, the event brought together festivals, art, motivational speeches, and panel discussions. The panel discussion addressed the shortage of access to mental health services, among other issues where the panel sounded rather serious on how the public is taking mental illness for granted.
Established as a general hospital in 1940 during the Italian occupation, SAGH took in about 130,000 patients in 2020, while more than 125,000 visited the facility in 2021, according to Abiyu Yenealem, Communications Director at SAGH. “Many more patients have to be kept where they dwell due to the pandemic,” says Abiyu. The facility is forced to deny access to its inpatient services to avert possible Covid-19 outbreaks.
At the facility, treatment is provided in three schemes. There is treatment for emergency cases, periodic care for patients who stay home but occasionally visit their doctors, and inpatient treatment for those with severe cases. No matter the scheme, all treatments involve psychotherapy and drugs.
“The hospital doesn’t have media partners but tries to use its own budget to plan and administer events and other artistic outdoor activities to create awareness on the matter,” said Abiyu. “Media and other stakeholders usually take the challenge of mental health for granted.”
Abiyu also raises the fear of stigma which is causing a serious lack of awareness. People don’t want to know as they fear they might be taken away. Only a few seem to understand the fatality of the challenge. “90Pct of suicides have mental illness profiles behind them.” Art is a vital tool to get the message across, and in such a powerful way too, according to Abiyu.
Studies show that 27 out of 100 Ethiopians are affected by the challenges of mental health. The country also spends ETB2.5 million on mental health every year. One in five families are affected and USD2.3 trillion is spent worldwide. The same studies show that people who have been displaced from their homes due to conflict and other natural disasters are highly likely to be affected by mental illness. They indicate that those displaced, as well as those giving shelter owing to conflict, environmental disasters, and other reasons have an increased chance of being inflicted as stress is the main cause for mental illness. In such cases, one in four are affected.
One person who seems to have understood both the prevalence and fatality of the challenge as well as the significance of art to address it is Meron Sisay. Aged 29, she is involved in arts medicine and is Country Director of Arts in Medicine Africa. Having graduated in performing and visual arts from Addis Ababa University, she has received a certificate in dementia and the arts from UCL, England.
“Arts medicine is treating patients through art without medicine,” explains Meron. It includes listening to music, storytelling, handcraft painting, working art journals, gardening, and other creative outdoor and indoor activities. It is very important to keep the patients occupied away from their worries and pain.” It does the trick in getting their health back quickly.
According to Meron, the arts medicine project started in 2015 and provides training for various institutions such as Desta Mender of the Catherine Hamlin Fistula Foundation, Charity Brothers which is a center for Autism in Gefersa just outside Addis Ababa, and SAGH. However, the trainings are not bringing about intended results as society takes the concept of arts medicine for granted.
“There seems to be little appetite as our society has no mental health awareness and more work is needed in that regard,” noted Meron.
By the time EBR visited Meron, she was finishing off a training session as per her agreement with Gefersa Mental Health Rehabilitation Center (GMHF), which has 86 patients. Meron is happy that the center welcomed her idea.
‘’I know it is good for patients and it is believed that it will have a positive outcome if they keep working hard,’’ points out Meron. She urges society to avoid the misunderstanding and possible stigmatization if one speaks out about mental illness.
Yonatan Surafel studied traditional art painting at the school of the famous Lemma Guya as well as art at Abyssinia Arts School, where he became informed about how art could be utilized beyond aesthetics. The books there made him realize how painting pictures could be used to treat people with mental health challenges.
So, Yonatan and his friends founded art therapy at Mekedonia Home for the Elderly and Mentally Disabled in 2017 and have since been working there as part-time volunteers. Their art therapy contains literature, theater, drama, painting, and other arts. The center brings people together from various mental health challenges including those with speaking disabilities. Thus, the inability to express inner feelings are everyday challenges at the center. Yonathan and his colleagues are challenging the obstacles by putting together their artistic tools and knowledge.
“We have had various experience-sharing platforms,” says Yonathan. In 2016 and 2017, him and his colleagues offered their services at the Black Lion Hospital’s children’s ward. “The children would forget their pain as we took their souls away through our paintings and other performances.”
Forgetting pain for a short period of time is not the only result, according to Yonathan. The process helps people teach themselves to slowly integrate with those around them and survive the dire conditions which they have endured. Four children, who attended the services of Yonathan and his colleagues at Black Lion Hospital, have even sold their works of art for ETB100,000 at an event held at the Sheraton Addis Hotel.
‘’Art saves lives in lots of ways,’’ he adds. EBR
10th Year • Dec 2021 • No. 102