MUTARE residents who enjoy eating their lunch while sitting in the Meikles Park have been easy prey for mentally disturbed people who pounce on their food.
The unsuspecting victims said taking your meal in the park has proved to be a costly and scary adventure.
There is a growing number of mental health patients on Mutare’s streets.
While there are no official figures on the number of mentally challenged people, the number is increasing by the day.
Pauline, a middle-aged woman, said she had been assaulted three times by mentally challenged people on the streets and now moves around with caution.
Her albinism makes her stand out in any crowd, her poor eyesight makes it difficult for her to identify her tormentors from a distance.
“Maybe they target me because I am different. My poor eye sight leaves me powerless and clueless so as to avoid these people,” Pauline said.
She feels hopeless and has not made any police report. “I know the attackers could not be held accountable for their actions because of their disability.”
Health experts believe the absence of a psychiatric hospital in the eastern border city has condemned mental health patients who need confinement rather than to roam on streets in search of food.
Manicaland’s sole psychiatric health detention institution— Sakubva District Hospital’s Psychiatric Unit was recently condemned by minister of Health and Child Care, Dr David Parirenyatwa and the Special Advisor to the President, Dr Timothy Stamps.
Parirenyatwa and Stamps condemned Sakubva District Hospital’s Psychiatric Unit following their tour of the place in a belated World Mental Health Day last September.
“This is a prison,” Parirenyatwa said when he entered a small cubicle that was used as a holding cell.
“There was a lot of money that was provided for psychiatric care after the (liberation) war, this should be a museum of what the Rhodesians did to us.” Stamps said.
People living with mental disabilities often do not have sympathisers because they are seen as perpetrators and not victims of their own mental condition.
Some of the mentally challenged have not been lucky though. Recently a woman was hit by a car along Herbert Chitepo Street. She now limps.
Psychiatric services were once a priority in Manicaland which suffered a heavy brunt of the liberation war, but that infrastructure is now in decay.
“The fact that the buildings at the Sakubva Psychiatric Unit were condemned compromises the quality of mental health care offered in the province,” Dr Mazvita Machinga, a psychotherapist at Pastoral Care and Counselling Services said.
“This means that people suffering from mental health problems have to travel to Harare, over 250km in search of hospitalisation. This is a big blow to those individuals who need care,” said Machinga, who is also a psychotherapist at Africa University’s Counselling Services Unit.
Machinga said research had shown that the degree of disability that mental health disorders cause could be equivalent to physical illnesses.
“With the importance and role of early intervention for mental health disorders, this situation in Mutare threatens effective psychiatric intervention. No matter how hard the health personnel at the Sakubva Psychiatric Unit work, without proper infrastructure that caters for the needs of psychiatric patients, the community continues to be deprived of quality mental health care,” he said.
Motorists are not immune from such attacks. Local journalist Andrew Mambondiyani had his car backed into after giving way to a violent mentally disabled man at a traffic intersection.
It is, however, unclear who is liable for such injury or damage to property.
Machinga said the family was responsible for taking mentally ill relatives for psychiatric care because “they are the ones who observe the illness in the first place”, while the government becomes responsible once a patient is admitted.
Human rights lawyer Passmore Nyakureba, however, said the buck stopped with the State.
“If my car is damaged by a pothole, I will sue the city council or if it’s a highway, the responsible minister, for neglect of their duties. I think the minister of Health is also neglecting his duties,” Nyakureba said.
Under Zimbabwe’s Mental Health Act, police are allowed to detain without a warrant a person suspected to be mentally ill and or is posing a danger to the public or the patient and order a medical examination.
Dr Patron Mafaune, the Manicaland Provincial Medical director said he had not received evidence that mentally ill patients were harassing people on the streets of Mutare.
“For the issue in question, we collaborate with the police because we do not want our patients to break the law. When they have, they are apprehended by the police, the patients will be brought to our health institutions for assessment and management,” he said.
Ropafadzo Tarugarira, coordinator for Sport 4 Socialisation (S4S) which works with mentally challenged people, however, said his organisation targeted people with disability that are below 25 years of age but had restrictions for those with mental disability.
Tarugarira however said S4S was not mandated to remove mentally challenged people from the streets as their work is mainly targeted at institutions, particularly schools.
Some mental health experts said mental disability should not suffer from the stigma of being confused with spirituality as is often in the Christian and Afrocentric worldviews which predominantly govern locals’ perceptions of the disability.
“The brain is just an organ. That person needs to be taken to hospital in spite of all the beliefs around the condition. The brain needs a delicate chemical balance to operate normally and an alteration of its structure will also alter one’s behaviour,” Machinga cautions.