Robin Hammond Responds - Debate About Mental Illness Story in Africa

On November 25th 2011, The New York Times published Robin Hammond’s study of the mentally ill in Africa, “Condemned”.  As he describes it in the New York Times article:

We often cover war, famine, natural disasters, but leave when the peace treaty is signed, the rains fall, the floodwaters recede ... Rarely do we talk about the long-term mental health impacts of these crises in Africa.

The story started a twitter discussion about the stereotypical nature of the pictures.  That discussion was summarized here on African Lens.  This post is Robin Hammond's response to the various points and issues raised in the discussion.  Perhaps, it is better to read that discussion first and come back to read his response here.

I am grateful to everyone who has taken the time to comment. Challenging remarks make me think harder about the work and how it should be delivered. They can make one look deeper and have the potential to make the project stronger.
 
The vast majority of messages I have received indicate that the intended vision behind this work is understood. The fact that a few question it shows that I must work harder to ensure that everyone understands why this project is being done.
 
CONDEMNED is about the mental health impact of crises in sub-saharan Africa. The premise of the project is that as journalists we cover war, drought, displacement and other natural and man-made disasters in Africa but then leave when we consider the crisis over - the peace treaty signed, the rains fallen, or the refugees are placed in camps. Rarely do we stay or return to see the long term impacts and almost never do we talk about the mental health impacts of these issues. 
 
It is well recognized that soldiers returning home from Afghanistan to the US for example can suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder - as a result of war, Africans do too (and of course there are many other mental health impacts to individuals who have been through crises - depression is one of the most common). There are often grave implications for services and infrastructure that should be in place for the mentally ill and mentally disabled. War, for example, diverts money that could be spent on hospitals, doctors and medication. Those with pre-existing (before the crisis struck) mental disabilities lose whatever systems that may have been in place. In other cases the setting up of these systems take much longer while countries recover from disaster.
 
This project is not about all of Africa, but about those countries that have seen crisis events that can have extreme mental health implications. I have defined war as a crisis event. War induced psychological trauma resulting in mental illness is well recognized.  Sexual violence is a sadly common crime committed in war. I don't think anyone would dispute that rape and the often brutal violence that comes with it can have mental health implications. Famine is a crisis event with extreme mental health impacts. Malnutrition during a child's crucial brain development stage can severely impair brain growth. Imagine seeing all of your five children starve to death - any parent can understand how traumatic that would be and how such a disaster would be hard to come back from.
 
Of course there are many events that can trigger mental illness. The point with this work though, is that as journalists we usually don't document the mental health implications of the disasters we regularly report on in Africa i.e. war, famine, displacement, sexual violence.
 
Unfortunately it is not only the media that have not given enough attention to mental health in countries in disaster. Sadly the mentally ill/mentally disabled are often stigmatized and marginalized in their own communities. Their opinions are not sought and when they attempt to give them, they are often disregarded. It is not uncommon for very basic decisions to be taken out of their hands. 
 
Denied by media and communities - they have no agency to speak for themselves. 
 
My project hopes to give them a voice. While I recorded many testimonies from subjects and have many hours of audio - this is not what I mean by 'giving them a voice.' It is (in many of these countries for the first time) to say these people exist, have rights, and deserve to be heard - not chained and forgotten.
 
Humanitarian action starts with creating awareness - that is the main purpose of this project.
 
It is a hard story to tell though. This is not a happy story. It is bleak. I was deeply shocked by what I saw. I hope viewers are shocked too. There are rays of hope, but they struggle through the darkness of despair (friends on twitter understood the metaphor). Bad stuff happens in Africa - as it happens in other parts of the world - should we not document it? I see a great danger in suggesting reporting that shows something negative in Africa is racist. It is the ultimate way to silence journalists with European ancestry. It would be patronizing to treat Africa in any different way to say Europe. I have photographed extensively on both continents - if we saw these images coming out of Europe would reactions be different? 
 
The most common comment I've had from Africans about this work is "I had no idea this went on." No African I know has said to me it "reinforces stereotypes", nor have the 200 people from NGO's who are supporting this work. I now recognize though that some people do feel that way and I have to do more work to provide appropriate context so the intention of the work is not misinterpreted. 
 
If time is taken to look at more of this work here: www.condemned-africa.com one would also see images of love, care, and compassion as well as those that highlight human rights abuses.
 
If all goes well, this work will continue to be noticed and attract more debate. My hope is that the conversation becomes about the issue and not how it is presented, and in the end those with mental illness/mental disability in African countries in crisis have their voices heard.
 
Robin

Original Twitter Debate - Robin Hammond's Story of Mental Illness in Africa

Published On:

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Author:

Victor Acquah

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