Vitumbiko Pheseri, 24, from Chimweyo Village in Nkhotakota was on her journey to becoming a police officer when a bout of malaria twisted her life while at Mtakataka Police Training School (PTS) in Dedza.
“In 2016, I was shortlisted to do training at Mtakataka PTS and one day, while there, I suffered from malaria which led to some hallucinations. This continued for three days.
“I was later referred to Zomba Mental Hospital where I was diagnosed with mental illness and started receiving treatment,” recounts Pheseri.
She says upon being discharged from the hospital, she was withdrawn from the training and went back home in Nkhotakota.
“My dream was shattered. I had no hope at all.
“I thought my life was over knowing that without tertiary education or any source of income, I would end up like many girls who get married and have children in their villages,” Pheseri says.
However, lady luck smiled at Pheseri in 2017 when she picked up a job at Partners in Hope.
Life got even better after being enrolled for financial literacy training by Youth Net and Counselling (YONECO) under the Mental Health Project funded by Comic Relief. She was taught how to become financially independent.
“During the training, we were drilled on how we can make money through businesses and how to manage the realised money.
“I am now in a small business of making yoghurt and malambe juice. I also run a bakery apart from being employed by Partners in Hope as a Data Entry Clerk at Dwambazi Rural Hospital,” Pheseri explains.
She says she makes K3,200 per day from the business and keeps her savings in a mobile money wallet.
“My life has changed for better even surpassing those who have no mental disorder record,” Pheseri says.
She notes that the financial freedom that she has now helped to reduce stigma and discrimination she was going through in the community.
“People used to think that I am redundant by sidelining me from developmental activities.
“Now the case is different as I am now part of village savings and loans group in which we also involved in home economics to teach one another how to make different juices,” Pheseri says.
Sankhani Kamanga, 22, shares a similar story. The father of two from Khwechu Village in the same district also suffered from mental illness due to drug and substance abuse in 2018.
Kamanga says through the project, health surveillance assistants (HSAs), with the aid of caregivers traced him and was taken to Nkhotakota District Hospital where he was told that he had mental health illness.
He was immediately put on treatment leading to his stability.
“Apart from receiving counselling from the trained HSA’s, I was incorporated into a financial literacy training and I now run a tailoring shop in my village where I make clothes for people in my village.
“On a daily basis, I make a minimum of K1000. I am now recollecting my life and I can take care of my wife and children,” Kamanga says.
According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), one in four people in the world are affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.
Currently, around 450 million people suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability globally.
In Malawi’s context, Zomba Mental Hospital Psychiatric Clinical Officer Harry Kawiya says the country has not done any study to establish prevalence of mental disorders in the country.
“Only few studies have been done in some health centres in Zomba, Machinga and other three anti-retroviral treatment (ART) clinics,” he says.
In case of Nkhotakota, Mental Health Clinical Officer at the district hospital, Khumbo Nyirenda says the facility normally sees 600 to 700 patients monthly.
“In addition, we register 15 new cases every month; implying that we have a huge problem.
“One major cause of mental health disorders in our district is Indian Hemp (Chamba). As you know, Nkhotakota is well known for cultivating the illicit herb,” Nyirenda says.
He further says the hospital also receives a number of patients with epilepsy, psychosis and mood disorders.
A baseline survey conducted by YONECO in traditional authorities (TAs) Kafuzira, Nkhotakota, Mlumbe in Zomba and Kulumbu in Lilongwe indicates that drug and substance abuse is the common cause of mental illness in the areas.
It is against this backdrop, therefore, that YONECO rolled out the Mental Health Project in the three TA’s where a component of financial literacy training to mental health stabilised persons was instituted.
YONECO Executive Director McBain Mkandawire says the organisation engages mental health stabilised persons in financial literacy because productivity is one of the major factors that make them vulnerable in society after mental illness.
“We realised that there is an increasing need for financial literacy training for the stabilised persons as a way of promoting their well-being and dealing with stigma, abuses and humiliation.
“It is important to note that survivors of mental health disease are considered to be vulnerable because of their financial status in society.
“Lack of economic assets overshadows the situation of mental health stabilised persons,” Mkandawire says.
To this effect, he says it is gratifying that the skills and knowledge acquired through the training sessions have helped the stabilised persons to achieve economic independence; hence, smooth integration into the society.
During the training, mentally stabilised persons are empowered with knowledge and skills on finance management to help them when engaged in small-scale businesses or employed to transform their lives.
One of the HSAs at Kasitu Health Centre in Nkhotakota, Jonathan Chirwa, who was trained alongside caregivers on how they can help the people, concurs with Mkandawire.
Chirwa says the stabilised persons have attained financial freedom as well as acceptance from their communities; hence, dealing away with abuse and stigma.
“There are 70 mental health stabilised persons assigned to me to follow up after the training and most of them are doing small businesses as well as engaged in crop and livestock production.
“Through the initiative, mental health stabilised persons are now integrating into the communities because they have proved to be equally responsible to the economic development of the nation,” Chirwa says.
However, Kawiya feels that the financial literacy to mental health stabilised persons is key to making sure that such people are empowered and live a quality life.
“One of the contributing factors to mental illnesses is poverty or financial problems. Therefore, the provision of financial literacy has the potential to deal with stress; thereby, ruling out issues of relapsing in stabilised persons.
“Government initiatives like social cash transfers also make an impact on the people as everybody needs economic empowerment,” Kawiya says.