Monday, February 9, 2009

Badminton and Mental Health

This weekend found us once again on the island in the middle of the Nile - this time for a colleague's birthday. Much more chill than other occasions, and lovely for it. In the course of the conversation the topic of badminton came up. Which turned into a discussion on the practices in different cultures of treating mental illness. More about how those two are related later.

A friend said he was reminded of an African Storytelling event at one of the cafes in his home town where a man got up in front of the audience and detailed his experience in Senegal. He was American, and had been battling depression for many years. This community had their own way of addressing depression, and they invited him to take part.

The whole town turned up for the effort, which included setting up a huge bed in the middle of the town square, and having the man sit on the bed with a goat. Dozens of blankets were piled over the man and the goat making the temperature rise (Senegal is basically on the equator, y'all) making the smell and fear from the terrified goat almost unbearable. The people then started shaking the bed and the blankets, hooting and hollering, drums beating in the background. This went on for about 20 mins after which the man was invited to get down from the bed and have a Coke. "This is the end of Phase I" the village elder informed him.

Phase II included getting back in the bed, under the blankets, with the goat, the same shaking and shouting and drum beating, except now he was expected to kill the goat. Once done, he was taken out, stripped naked, and smeared with the goat's blood. Chickens were also killed and the blood smeared on the man.

And that was it.

To these people, depression was a result not of a chemical imbalance in the brain, but of spirits being pissed off at you for some reason and tormenting you because of it. In order to cure the depression, you had to figure out why the spirits were mad at you, make peace with them, and then ask them to leave. The goat's death represented the spirits leaving the man alone.

After the event, my friend chatted with another one of the storytellers who was from Rwanda, and talked about the efforts of the Western medical system to help the people recover from the genocide in 1994.

"In Rwanda, these Western doctors arrived, and they tried to treat people one by one and in small groups. They brought people inside buildings, bare rooms, harsh lighting, inside away from the sun which makes you feel good, alone and isolated from people they care about, and made them talk about the worst thing that happened to them in their entire life in front of a strange person they did not even know. The Senegalese method makes sense. Think about it. The whole town took off work that day, and came to support this one man, who they did not even know, in order to help him. It was a community event, and everyone was rooting for him. It was outside, and connected to the earth and tangible things to help this man"

Put like that, the storyteller has a point.

Everyone battles their own demons, so to speak, but is a cure dependent on your personality, the specific affliction you have, or your own set of beliefs and values? Do we in developed countries value modern medicine, so it works? Would the same thing work for a genocide survivor in Rwanda? What about people in Southern Sudan who for the past 3 generations have known nothing but war? What do you think?


And what was it that connected the conversation about badminton with the mental illness stories? It was the unfortunate name of the rubber-tipped item that gets whacked around in badminton: the Shuttlecock.

Apparently my friend heard the word "shuttlecock" which reminded him of the chickens who played a part in the depression-battling session of the storyteller. The meaning of the chickens? He never found out.

Go figure :)

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