Saturday, 13 October 2012

Liberia slowly comes to terms with civil war's impact on mental health

Dakemue Kollie had to shout over the roar of his motorbike. "I am called the crazy people's friend," he said with a smile. "But I don't blame them. I accept the name and then try to change their minds." Kollie, 33, a mental health co-ordinator in Bong county in central Liberia, rides up to 200km a day along potholed, dusty roads visiting patients in rural areas. The majority are women affected by forms of what he calls anxiety or depression. "There were a lot of war[s] fought here," he said, looking out over the ruins of the anti-terrorist unit base, once home to the elite band of paramilitaries who, under the convicted former president Charles Taylor, committed acts of torture and murder. "Even though I was small I remember everything."

More than 250,000 people were killed during Liberia's 14 years of civil conflict and much of the country's infrastructure was completely destroyed, leaving a republic scarred by decades of violence and carnage. A 2008 study by members of the American Medical Association found 44% of adults displayed symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

Dr Benjamin Harris, Liberia's only resident psychiatrist, said: "People tend to endure their suffering rather than seek professional help [because of the] lack of conceptual understanding of what PTSD is all about."

The Carter Centre, an organisation that runs a mental health project in Liberia, states that less than 1% of Liberians have access to appropriate mental health services; in developed countries it is closer to half. In a region still reeling from the effects of the war, mental health is low on a long list of priorities.

Kollie's desire to work in mental health was born of his own experiences during the war years. He was just 15 when his father, a cook at the county's hospital, was killed in a 1994 massacre by Taylor's rebels; he later watched both his sister and mother fall sick and die. "My mother, because of the only daughter she had, got depressed and worried on it until she died also," he said. "So from there I really decided to go into the health field."

To read the rest of this article, please follow this link to the Guardian website.

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