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The Stigma of Mental Illness

One afternoon I was walking to the bus with Christina and our co-worker Marlene.  A man with what was probably schizophrenia approached Marlene and started talking in a garbled way, asking for money. Marlene, who in her words “loves to talk to the people,” chatted with him for a while, probing his story, before we gave him a coin. He ran away with a giddy hitch in his step. The villagers around us laughed at his departing image and bombarded Marlene with questions that basically all asked, “Why did you talk to that fool?”

One of our newest Global Grassroots teams is a group of mothers who started a boarding school for children with disabilities– to our knowledge, the only institution of its kind in the country. As a budding psychologist I was excited to see the Rwandan equivalent of special education.

Packed-mud rooms contain bunks for the children, who have ample space to play outside on the cement and grass.  Uphill, a cooking hut leaks charcoal smoke, and adjacent sits a wooden structure where children and teachers eat beans and rice. As I approached the school, an adorable deaf girl in her blue uniform dress spotted me.  Grabbing my hand, she pulled me on a tour of her own bunk room, small and bare classroom, and squat toilet, where she crinkled and held her nose, yanking me quickly past.  She dropped me at the well-decorated and electrified office of the director.  During our meeting, an older girl with mental retardation opened the door, plopped down on the couch and struck up conversation with our translator for a few minutes before she was gone, as abruptly as she’d come.

On our way out, the director scooped up a crying infant with a deformed face and a mass the size of a baseball over one temple.  A child with withered legs was propped in a wheelchair, his head leaning listlessly to one side, his eyes not recognizing our smiles.  My original tour guide introduced me to her friend, a girl who motioned towards her lips that she couldn’t speak, while a boy with an adult-looking face and a giant smile streaked by me in energetic laps around the lawn.  They are all classmates.  Diagnoses would be difficult to translate into English, but our co-worker Marlene was spared: we’ve been told there are only seven psychologists in the country, so most of these rural children have never been labeled.

Even if clinical services were available, I am doubtful that parents would willingly take their children. A mother who bears a child with a disability is usually ostracized or even rejected by her family. They might say that she is possessed by evil spirits and blame her for giving birth to a child who will consume the family’s resources and never contribute. She may be forced to work a full-time job and simultaneously care for her child, without help.  The directors of the school– all mothers of at least one child with special needs– applied to be Global Grassroots social change agents because they want to help other women in their position. They hope to do educational outreach to families to teach them how to care for their child with special needs, and maybe even love him/her as their other children.  They plan to teach sign language to mothers of deaf children, and their community awareness campaign will work to dispel the myths.

Last, to combat the notion that these children and their mothers only drain family resources, the team will set up a small grocery store. Mothers who face severe maltreatment from their families will collectively manage the store and market their home-grown produce there. Through the store they will generate income, which the team hopes will raise their familial status and put an end to the ostracizing. It even solves the problem of childcare while at work: Their children will socialize at the store, and those who are able will restock shelves, thereby dispelling the myth that they are unproductive members of an unsympathetic society.

Leonice, president of the school for children with special needs, and a young child with a tumor over his temple.
The girl on the left gave me a tour of the dorms, classrooms, and bathrooms, and then introduced me to her friend on the right, who is also deaf.

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