Télema mental health center, located in Kintambo district, in Kinshasa, the capital of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), it is the largest health complex dedicated to mental illness on the entire African continent. Behind its creation, organization and operation is Sister Ángela, a nun of the Sisters of the Hospitallers, a native of Panes (Asturias) who has been awarded several times by the Embassy of Spain, for the Princess of Asturias Award for Concord.
The Telema health complex It has accommodation for hospitalization and others for counselling, with physiotherapy, laboratory and pharmaceutical services. Starting in the fall, there will be a cabin for 25 prisoners. It has another space for occupational therapy, which aims to improve the physical, postural, functional, emotional and psychological health of people with neurological disorders. Through workshops, they learn to sew and do work related to sewing that provides them with a living. The current center, inaugurated in the middle of the pandemic, was created after the original Télema was insufficient in the face of a growing demand that exceeds 40,000 consultations a year.
In this place, the person suffering from a mental illness regains his dignity, receives medical treatment with regular supervision, and is given the opportunity to recognize himself as a human being. Sister Angela takes care of it. Every morning he walks around the counseling booth, greeting those waiting for medical attention, checking the condition of those in the hospital and making sure they have food and everything they need. He collects some from the street and places them in some corner of the city center. When you are with her, her ability to connect with these patients is striking. It also directs and organizes the studio where stable people work. The products of this workshop are well known and appreciated in Kinshasa.
In the Congo, and in most African countries, mental illness carries a stigma. They are attributed to witchcraft and it is believed that those who suffer from it are possessed by an evil spirit that can cause harm to relatives. The sick, driven from their families, roam the streets in a state of total abandonment, filthy and midnight. They walk bewildered and their gaze lost in the indifference of the crowd that passes by them. When it comes to women everyone, sooner or later, is a rape victim and they have their children on the street. In addition to the mental problems of the mother, the child survives in these conditions.
In the Congo, and in most African countries, mental illness is a stigma
The abundance of this type of disease on the streets of Kinshasa is surprising. The afflicted appear anywhere. Lying on the ground, in the water pipes, full of trash, even on the cement blocks separating the two-way street. We must take into account the conditions that facilitate the development of mental disorders: extreme poverty, which hinders intellectual development; mass emigration to the cities in search of livelihood, which ends up becoming a trap; hunger; malnutrition, which causes cognitive impairment; family disorganization; and a background of ignorance, which becomes an ideal breeding ground for superstition.
Mental illness affects women much more because of the structural violence against them that affects all areas of life. Women carry heavy family and work burdens, but also a complex social system, with its courtship of beliefs and customs, which makes them victims. If you are breached, quite common in this country, her husband disowns her and throws her out on the street, separating her from the family core and her children. In this way, some people end up getting sick, because the pain caused by the exclusion and isolation of their family is added to the pain of the aggression.
For more than 30 years, Ángela has collected from the streets those who suffer from some form of mental illness; also to mentally disabled people who are abandoned by their families and live in difficult conditions due to lack of care. Sometimes she welcomes into her home young women who are also victims of rape and become pregnant. In these cases, he takes care of the mother and child until he can provide them with a safe environment. I once shared with her the arrival of a four-day-old baby who had been born on the street in the city center. Her mother, a sick young woman, wanted to feed her kola nuts, but Sister Angela taught her to breastfeed.
Telema’s goal is for the individual to receive the necessary medical care to stabilize their mental state; afterwards you can train yourself to work in a workshop. Another goal is the reintegration of the patient with his family or with a foster family. To that end, we are working on raising awareness, which has the purpose of recognizing the person as a victim of pathology. For years, Sister Angela has also worked for the rights of people suffering from various mental disorders and for the recognition of mental illnesses as such. In Kinshasa he has received several awards and has also received the official cross of the Order of Isabella the Catholic.
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