KB Asante: Voice From Afar column
How many of us are always normal?
I was persuaded by an article about mental health in the Daily Graphic to write about normal behaviour. I believe we all go “crackers” now and again: when that pattern of behaviour continues for some time and becomes somewhat habitual we question the mental state and regard the person concerned as mentally ill.
But when is a person really mentally ill? The psychiatrist will give us a scientific definition based on observation and study. We laymen tend to regard a person with abnormal behaviour as mentally ill and tend to ostracise him or her. The mental hospital was in my youth known as the lunatic asylum and the word “lunatic” was appropriately used for those kept inside its confines. We regarded those with such abnormalities as “madmen” and tried to keep at a distance from even relations with the symptoms.
It was more “respectable” to believe that such relations were victims of witchcraft or religion. Patients were sent to the shrine or prayer house and indignities were sometimes inflicted upon them. But my own observation is that some 60 per cent of us are afflicted with problems which turn us abnormal now and again – sometimes over long periods. It is our duty to persuade our fellow creatures that we are not all always as normal as we think. We should, therefore, try to help those afflicted by unusual behaviour over long periods.
Our few psychiatrists are trying hard to cope with the situation. I was lucky to watch a programme on radio and television about mental health not long ago. We who are normal for long periods should try to understand those afflicted with equally long spells of unusual behaviour.
I got interested in mental illness when I tried to organise a consular service at the London High Commission in 1957. Many Gold Coast students now Ghanaian students had left the country to return as distinguished lawyers and doctors. Those who failed to qualify as professionals would not return home. Some became mentally disturbed. I took them to the Royal Marsden in London. The doctors were good and made me understand a good deal about mental health.
I was able to put incidents and behaviour into their appropriate perspective. I recalled a friend who was a year behind me at the Honours School of Mathematics. While I was struggling with Bertrand Russel “Principia Mathematica” he was in conference with the great philosopher. He was definitely meant for greatness. Then one day the Chaplain came to see me. My friend was in trouble. He refused to continue with his yearly examination because he could not get First Class. He eventually left for London where he loitered around until returning home to die.
I realised that some of those we called “mad” were actually afflicted with an over-developed mental capacity. The experts may describe the situation appropriately but as a layman I believe that by the Grace of God I am not afflicted by any serious illness of the body or mind.
It is time we think differently about those afflicted with mental illness. Our psychiatric hospitals should be better resourced to deal with the state of the mental health of the people. More people are afflicted than we think. More need assistance than they believe they need. We should try to understand friends and relations afflicted with various degrees of mental problems.