A look at my personal experiences with and perspectives on mental health concerns in parts of West Africa — excerpt from my work in a Psychology class I took a year ago. Happy reading.
Several topics covered in this class have interested me greatly because I could use some concepts to analyze cultural observations and personal experiences. Amidst my many interests, I was particularly drawn to the subject of stress, its challenges, and the ways people interpret events and cope with stress.
My living and learning experiences in diverse cultures have drawn my attention to how different societies view mental health. Stress means different things to different people; in my opinion, the definition of stress and interpretation of events can be influenced by sociocultural values. In the following paragraphs I explore the reasons for my interest in the subject of stress in the light of some observations and personal experiences.
David Myers in the course textbook defines stress as the process of appraising and responding to a threatening or challenging event (Myers, 2014).
How individuals appraise an event determines their level of stress, more than the event itself (Lazarus, 1998). An interesting example of the latter statement was a conversation I had with a Caucasian female from the United States whose daughter married a man from West Africa. She narrated that at the wedding, during his prayer, a West African pastor prayed that the couple would have many twins and triplets! She was rather shocked that he would pray that, explaining to me that that could put her daughter at risk, and her daughter agreed as well. To them, aside complications at birth, it was more expensive to have more kids. I found that interesting and identified that women from West Africa would agree with such a prayer or wish, since having more kids in those societies is a sign of fertility – and could even earn them rewards. One woman, about to have triplets, is excited at the prospects of being rewarded and bringing honor to her family; another woman anxious about her health and concerned about financial resources, thus experiences stress.
Stressors cause stress; they can be environmental, major, minor, acute and chronic. Stressors vary in level of intensity and persistence. According to Yerkes-Dodson curve, not all stress have a negative effect. Some level of stress can lead to optimal performance, however, extreme or prolonged stress causes problems. High levels of stress can also be linked to changes in health behaviors which can lead to illness or death eventually. Therefore, learning how to cope with stress is vital to preventing its negative effects.
In my opinion, a good percentage of international college students in the United States are exposed to a number of stressors. Further, if not handled well, their academic and career development can be affected. In addition to dealing with the typical stressors associated with college life (e.g., financial demands, academic pressures, loneliness, career indecision), international students must also cope with the challenges associated with adapting to a foreign country. Such challenges include culture shock, confusion about role expectations in the United States, homesickness, loss of social support, discrimination, and language barriers (Sodowsky & Lai, 1997).
Before I came to the United States, all I heard was how there were more opportunities here and better facilities. I had heard the term ‘culture shock’, but its meaning was not clear to me. In an article on international student careers, it was “discussed how a person’s identity becomes formed specifically through their connections with others.
Other relational theorists posit that being in mutually empat
hic connection with others leads to psychological health, while disconnection from others restricts psychological growth, often leading to depression and anxiety” (Arthur & Popadiuk, 2011). Upon arrival to the country, everything seemed fine until I begun living on campus. I perceived the individualistic culture as discrimination on campus. Coming from a collectivist society, I could not understand how people did not like to cooperate for the common good. This perception caused stress for some weeks until I decided to change the ways I interacted with students and how I perceived their attitudes – problem-focused coping.
Additionally, I experienced prolonged stress in my academics before coming to college in the US. However, I did not learn how to deal or cope with stress for a long time, since stress was not considered as an issue that needed to be addressed. I was also away from family and friends – a social support system, but I did not identify the emotional indicators as stress concerns. There were periods during my education when I could not sleep, make firm commitments and could not perform well academically. In my readings of research articles on the subject, these experiences are common for many other international students. However, many of them are from cultures that do not regard the importance of mental health, hence they do not cope with stress well.
In Nigeria and Ghana, countries I grew up in, many people do not admit mental health concerns; such matters are viewed as shameful. Majority of the population in these nations do not see the need to seek psychological help, and psychoanalysis is frowned upon. And in many communities, it is almost unheard of to take mediation for mental reasons other than insanity. Most people believe that medication should only be for bodily ailments. However, I have seen many cases of ‘psychological concern’ in many people. It is believed that insanity is the only reason to use the services of psychologist or psychiatrist.
There was an experience I had with family friends, where their daughter was going to have a baby. In my conversations with her, she sounded paranoid and depressed – I had thought she was not herself. She had lost a pregnancy only a few months ago, and there was also ‘pressure’ from the society on her to have kids because she had been married for
over a year. She also seemed to have an external locus of control – believing that some forces outside her were controlling her fate. Throughout the term of her pregnancy she lost a lot of weight. I went in to see her after having her baby and she looked so pale and unhappy. She was constantly fretting over the baby’s weight and saying that the baby was unhealthy and might die. She also instructed us not to tell anyone that she had a baby, so no one would cast a spell and kill it. Months after, she remained depressed, anxious and paranoid. Due to the way our society views mental health, her family blamed her for being like that, and warned her to stop it. For a very long time, they did not approach it as a mental health concern. Eventually, she had to be admitted at a psychiatric hospital. Looking back, in the light of topics covered this semester, I believe she was experiencing high levels of prolonged stress and these were causes changing in her health behaviors.
In conclusion, my interest in the subject of stress was because of many
observations and my personal experiences. This has led me to read many articles in a quest to better understand the subject, and learn ways of coping. In parts of Western Africa, I have identified stress-caused illnesses, which can be countered with education on stress management. My many experiences fueled my interest in psychology education as a whole. Additionally, since mental health was not considered as important in my former societies, I hope to be able to advocate for psychology education in the communities I have lived in in the future.
Wintony Sands. December 2015.
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