After 30 years of torment . . . Mkorongo leads mental illness fight

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AT the age of 17, Angelica Mkorongo started having weird unwanted intrusive thoughts, scary images, embarrassing and violent obsessions that led to repetitive behaviours, also known as compulsions.

These obsessions and compulsions interfered with her daily activities and caused significant distress. She lost a lot in life and never enjoyed it for more than 30 years as no one really understood what was going on with her.

 

Angelica Mkoronga

 

“I didn’t enjoy life, because I was always scared. Even when I was supposed to be having fun, I would always be at war with my mind,” Angelica told the Daily News on Sunday.

“I suffered from obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) for more than 30 years. Those 30 years were the loneliest, the most frightening and most hopeless. Several times in those years I felt like ending my life.

“The best thing that happened to me four years ago was to discover and know that I had this disorder. This empowered me into knowing how to handle every situation without feeling that I was losing it.”

Obsessive compulsive disorder is characterised by unreasonable thoughts and fears (obsessions) that lead to compulsive behaviours. It often centres on themes such as a fear of germs or the need to arrange objects in a specific manner. Symptoms usually begin gradually and vary throughout life.

Treatment includes talk therapy, medication or both.

“When I was diagnosed with OCD after almost 30 years of suffering from this disorder, I looked for a support group and there was none in the country,” Angelica said.

“I had to join international support groups and when I talked to people about OCD, most of the people didn’t know what it was or those who did thought that it only affected white people.

“I realised that there was a huge gap in mental health knowledge in the country and went on to form the Zimbabwe OCD Trust, which assists individuals going through depression or mental illness issues.

“I hope to see a change in the way people perceive those living with depression and disorder.”

The World Health Organisation states that 1,2 percent of any population suffers from OCD regardless of race and gender. It also states that it’s among the top 10 most disabling illnesses.

While depression, mental illness and OCD is the most common illness worldwide with more than 264 million people affected, it is rarely addressed in African society as it is usually associated with witchcraft and demons.

The stigma associated with depression has seen some communities locking away family members and treating them worse than animals simply because they have mental illness.

According to WHO, about 30 million people in Africa are affected by depression, and it is the leading cause of disability, and a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease; and at worst, can lead to suicide, which is the second leading cause of death in 15-29 year-olds globally.

Suicide is the 19th most common cause of death in Zimbabwe, with 1 641 people taking their own lives in 2018, about 1,3 percent of all deaths; while one in four people worldwide have been affected by mental health or neurological disorders at some point in their life.

Over 450 million people suffer from mental and neurological disorders worldwide.

Health minister Obadiah Moyo said last year the country had one million people suffering from mental and neurological disorders.

“Despite the availability of treatment, nearly two thirds of persons with a known mental disorder never seek professional help,” he said.

“In most cases stigma, discrimination, neglect and limited knowledge prevent care and treatment from reaching people with mental and neurological disorders, hence the need for awareness campaigns so that communities are empowered and they take an active role in reducing morbidity due to mental ill health.”

Angelica concurred that there is lack of knowledge about the disorder among sufferers and the community as a whole.

“In a country with 15 million people, there are only 15 registered psychiatrists in Zimbabwe. Therefore most of the mentally ill lack psychological and medical assistance and are shunned by the community due to ignorance,” she said. In most cases, even the family members are equally confused, and so are the traditional healers and the prophets, as people run to them for spiritual salvation while a lot of ethnic Zimbabweans believe that OCD is a Western disorder.

“OCD can be hereditary, and sometimes triggered by psychological or biological factors.

“Unfortunately I have seen families destroyed and relationships ruined because of superstition surrounding the condition.”

Angelica added that people living with OCD have been subjected to these superstitions and it has resulted in serious stigma, hence the need for awareness countrywide.

“I decided to help others by starting Zimbabwe OCD Trust which now already has a support group for moral support and our mission is to raise awareness of the disorder to the Zimbabwean people,” she said.

“We noticed that some end up taking their own lives if the mental disorders are not dealt with properly. I am also working on eradicating stigma associated with the mentally ill in Zimbabwe.

“What makes me happy is that I had the chance to review the Government of Zimbabwe Mental Health Strategic five-year plan and my main input was advocating for more psychiatrists and medication in psychiatric institutions, better treatment and a higher budget to be allocated to mental health issues and more transparency on OCD as this is a disorder that is hardly spoken about.”

As one of the reviewers of the 2020-2023 Ministry of Health mental health department strategic plan, Angelica and team formed a mental health support group which caters not only for people with OCD but other associated disorders like anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol abuse and suicidal behaviour.

“Talking openly about my challenges and educating people about OCD brings me so much joy. To me that means owning my life and my story and refusing to allow others to detect how I view myself or feel about myself,” she said.

“I am a peer mentor and I want to show others that they too can live a meaningful life while battling with a mental disorder.”

Angelica is a former biology teacher and graduated with a Masters in Biology from Russia. Upon her return from Russia she taught ‘A’ Level biology for some years and then joined her husband’s business as sales and marketing director before founding the Zimbabwe OCD Trust in 2018.

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