News /Sithole: Look to Africa for lessons in recovery
By Shannon Eliot
Masipula Sithole Jr. has lived in societies so different from one another that he is still questioning the definition of normal to this day.
Sithole, a graduate student in international development at Johns Hopkins University, grew up in Harare, Zimbabwe. As a child, he struggled with stuttering and had his first experience with therapy at the age of five, years before ever hearing the phrase "bipolar." Now an adult, Sithole warmly looks back on that experience as fundamental to shaping his views on mental illness.
"My first form of therapy was speech therapy," Sithole said. "I was fortunate enough to have therapist who saw me as a speaker instead of a stutterer. It has shaped how I think of the therapy that I received for mental health. To be given a diagnosis that you are mentally ill is like saying you are a stutterer who will never speak. It’s life without a destination."
At the age of 14, Sithole migrated to the United States and found himself trying to fit in to a small town in rural Ohio, the only black student in his high school. With the transition came culture shock, identity crises, and a significant clash in values.
"The transition from Africa to rural America was tough," Sithole said. "I found myself in a primarily white community. I was the only black kid in the town, let alone in my school. The difference between life back home and life in America was overwhelming. That is where my bipolar started."
Sithole knows that his diagnosis is rooted in the dissonance he experiences between the pace and lifestyles of two very different cultures and lands. And he knows he is not alone.
"I think a lot of people are simply going through life — traumas, pains, and grief, for example — and it’s unfair to say that somebody is hurting and then diagnose them as having a mental illness," Sithole said. "For me, it was a cultural crisis that was happening to me, as opposed to a mental illness."
While Sithole somewhat disagrees with the concept of diagnoses and struggles with the terminology — he calls his own situation a "bipolar blessing" — he believes that his condition has bestowed upon him certain gifts that allow him to serve others.
"We live in a polarized world where there is poverty and prosperity side by side, black and white, male and female," Sithole said. "Calling me bipolar is me having a natural reaction or reflection to what is a very polarized world."
And while Sithole has been reluctant to self-identify with his socially imposed label, his humanitarian spirit has inspired him to use it for the greater good.
"Through the complications I’ve suffered by having a mental illness or being a black man, I’ve found areas where I can contribute," Sithole said. "With a little soul-searching, I found ways I can start being of service to society. I feel fortunate for my complications and suffering because they've given me a compass and a purpose."
After 10 years in Ohio, Sithole returned to Zimbabwe to revisit his roots and discover what had been happening in his homeland for the previous decade. He was also inspired to return as Africa is the home of one of his favorite instruments, the thumb piano.
It was there that he re-discovered the basics and started to implement alternative ways to managing his challenges.
One tool that affected him more than he anticipated was his beloved thumb piano, which has a heritage of healing of over 1000 years.
"Medication wasn't enough for me, so I started looking for alternatives," Sithole said. "Music has played a magnificent role in helping me keep my calm and cool and having a creative outlet."
Not only is music therapy effective, but it also makes fiscal sense. Africa does not possess welfare systems and facilities to take care of those with mental health issues are sparse, according to Sithole. In the absence of such a system and ability to consistently get reliable meds, people need to find other options for handling distress.
As a result, Sithole has been inspired to heighten music therapy and ethnomusicology, sharing them in mental health settings both in America and abroad.
"To be black, to be African, and to deal with the legacy or the heritage of the horrific history of colonialism and slavery involves rage and restlessness," Sithole said. "Sometimes people are depressed because they are oppressed. There is not enough consideration for social dimensions out there that are impacting people. In the absence of social change, people continue to suffer. Pill-popping people's pain away and using meds to try to mitigate rage doesn't quite work. We are dealing with the symptoms, not the source of things."
One of the strongest advocates of the idea that mental health challenges are socially induced, according to Sithole, is the Algerian psychiatrist Franz Fanon (1925-1961). Deeply committed to his work, Fanon found that his clients would significantly improve then relapse and return to his care.
Fanon ultimately came to conclusion that there was nothing he could do to assist his clients short of changing colonialism and its resulting constraints. As a result, he gave up his psychiatric practice and joined the liberation struggle.
Another psychiatric professional by the name of Eric Fromm cited capitalism and materialism — causes entirely social in nature — as root causes of people’s mental health disorders.
"When we look at the society that has labeled us as mentally ill, there are a lot of aspects that make us question whether the normal functioning people are really well," Sithole said. "The questions of morality and spirituality are not given enough credence in Western practice. The West has a fixation on functioning. If you function, you're well; if you can't function, you’re not well. But can somebody be wicked and also be well?"
As he finished up high school and lessons on Black History Month, Sithole became convinced that mental health issues were a result of being spiritually sick.
Towards the end of his life, Sithole says, Martin Luther King Jr.'s optimism had dwindled a bit. While King was still a dreamer, the resistance and complications that unfolded in the civil rights movement required that he rework his approach.
It was at the end of his journey that King called for the International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment that would challenge the injustices of society.
"That basically said that if you're living in a society where people are ill-natured and mistreat each other and are mean to each other, adjusting yourself and adapting to that system would be detrimental to your health," Sithole said. "In order to be 'well' in our wicked society, you need to be maladjusted to that wicked society."
Sithole concluded with the importance of being true to one's self in finding solutions as institutions will almost always fall short. As long as we look more to ourselves and possess a strong spiritual grounding found in African culture, says Sithole, we will be fine.