All knowledge is carried by language. Therefore, the language we use to conceptualise mental illness portrays our understanding of the condition and its treatment.
In Malawi, mental illness is misala in Chinyanja. A person suffering from mental illness is wamisala (a mad one), openga (one who lost his mind) or odwala (sick or diseased to the extent of losing reason). All the three terms have a negative connotation and, therefore, attract maximum stigma.
To appreciate that the terms are loaded with stigma, consider malaria fever. A person suffering from malaria fever is assumed ill, akudwala in Chinyanja.
This is unlike wamisala (the mad one). If we were to speak as we do in mental illness, then the one with malaria fever would have been wamalungo, (the malaria fever one).
But such is not the case with malaria fever. In malaria fever, the person is ill. He is not the malaria fever itself while in mental illness, the patient is the mental illness itself, wamisala, openga, odwala.
We have a negative conception of mental illness and, therefore, no meaningful discussion of the nature of the condition. Further, mental illness has become a hidden problem because there is no awareness.
We do not know the types of mental illness, the causes and treatment availability. Sometimes it is like all mentally ill people fell ill because of smoking hemp and, therefore, no one should care about them, zofuna (self affliction).
But there is no health without mental health. Sadly, in all the four election campaigns I have followed (1994, 1999, 2004, 2009), no manifesto particularly mentioned mental health.
Our presidential candidates talk about health in general. If anything in particular, it is maternal health, malaria, HIV and AIDs. Nothing on mental health, really.
The reason is with all of us. Our language demonstrates that mental health does not have a meaningful place in our everyday life. The way our language portrays the illness speaks for itself.
But we need to place mental health top on the national agenda because there is no health without mental health.