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Did you know that interculturality not only enriches our lives, but also our mental health projects?
This month we would like to introduce you to Alphonsine Futi, Sister Hospitaller, doctor and director of our Benito Menni Mental Health Centre in Douala, Cameroon who tells us how different cultures and perspectives intertwine to provide quality care.
Could you tell us more about the Benito Menni Mental Health Centre in Douala, Cameroon, and its mission?
Our Sisters Hospitallers of the Sacred Heart of Jesus settled in the city of Yaoundé, where we opened the Benito Menni Mental Health Centre. During the consultations, we realised that there were many patients coming from the city of Douala and its surroundings. Hence the need to open a similar centre in Douala.
In 2000, the Sisters Hospitallers started activities in the city of Douala in a small place in the neighbourhood called “grand moulin”. At that time, the Sisters and their collaborators received about ten patients per day. Then, in 2002, the centre integrated its facilities in the Ndogpassi III district. Today, approximately 152 patients are welcomed and treated in our San Benito Menni structure.
The hospital project carried out in Douala by our Sisters and all those who collaborate in this project is perceived as a great charitable aid by the whole population, because in a context of marginalisation, devaluation and a certain economic poverty, the hospital response of the Benito Menni Mental Health Centre is a prophetic sign of God’s presence for suffering humanity.
We offer our hospitality for neurological and psychiatric consultations and certain general medical pathologies, we have an occupational therapy workshop for manual occupational therapy, a kinesis therapy service and a small laboratory for routine examinations. We carry out charity service among our sick brothers and sisters who wander the streets and we go to the suburbs to care for those who, for distance and other economic reasons, cannot reach us.
What is the most exciting or innovative project you have been working on recently at the mental health centre?
You have to live it to be touched and moved by the presence of several mentally ill people, abandoned, disfigured by illness, hunger, those who wander half-naked in the streets of the city of Douala.
Immediately, we realise that many mentally ill people find themselves in a situation of great vulnerability which gives rise to feelings of compassion, closeness and care.
Faced with this suffering, we respond through the Rehabilitation of Street Patients project, which consists of practising the Gospel of Jesus the Good Samaritan in the form of a charitable service: visiting, washing, caring for, feeding and reintegrating these poor sick people, our brothers and sisters, into their families. The aim is to restore dignity to the suffering person. The street project humanises the wounded and makes us witnesses of God’s mercy.
How has this project impacted the local community and the lives of the patients?
The community feels mature in the experience of God’s merciful love for suffering humanity. The service given to the mentally ill abandoned on the streets through the rehabilitation project strengthens our identity as consecrated women, passionate about God’s merciful love symbolised by his Sacred Heart.
This service to the sick makes us witnesses of hope in a world torn apart by physical and psychological suffering. Thanks to this project of rehabilitation of street patients, we make visible the experience of the charism and respond to the invitation of the Church to go out to the periphery where the Lord awaits us through the poor.
The first beneficiaries of the project are the patients to whom the Lord sends us. As they themselves like to say once they have been treated and reintegrated: “It is an experience of death and resurrection. Because of this, we no longer matter to anyone, neither to society nor to our families. Thank God, we are on our feet.
This also has a very positive impact on the population and relatives of the patients who, through the service provided by the project, administer the appropriate care and monitor the treatment.
The better the population discovers a scientific view of mental illness, the more the culture is purified, because we move from a conception of mental illness in terms of “bad luck” and “witchcraft” to a purely scientific conception.
What challenges have you faced in implementing this initiative in such a diverse environment as Douala, Cameroon?
The ethnic diversity found in Douala confronts us with various conceptions of mental illness, such as the “mystical aspect” of bad luck as a point of insertion, witchcraft, magic, etc. Consequently, we are faced with a major challenge, which is that of stigmatisation. We need to raise awareness on a daily basis through educational talks and through the project of rehabilitation and reintegration of street patients to which we are trying to commit ourselves resolutely.
Could you share an example of a patient whose life has significantly improved thanks to this project?
The project for the rehabilitation of street patients has a positive impact which we evaluate by the outcome of the service provided and by the achievement of the various objectives proposed in the project.
Several of our mentally ill brothers and sisters on the street have seen their health improve and have moved from the street to their families and continue to be monitored through monthly consultations at the San Benito Menni Mental Health Centre.
Among them is “Alexie, the Entrepreneur”, a severe schizophrenic whom we managed to treat and reintegrate into his family after several years on the street, close to a building he thought he owned in his supposed capacity as an entrepreneur.
At first, contact was not easy. Then, over time, we created a closeness with him, with love, care and pharmacological treatment. He returned to normality and then we proceeded with family reintegration. Today, our brother’s mental health seems stable. He attends the appointment every month accompanied by his family for follow-up.
We know that you are a doctor and a Sister Hospitaller. How do you combine your medical knowledge with your religious vocation in your daily work?
My primary identity is that of a Sister Hospitaller of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, so the service I provide can only be a logical consequence of this Hospitaller identity.
Medicine as a profession was simply grafted onto my identity as a Hospitaller Sister in order to open up the horizon of scientific knowledge for the benefit of my suffering neighbour, that is to say, for the benefit of my sick brothers and sisters, who are the recipients of our mission.
Father Menni told us: “Religion and science must work together, uniting their efforts for the relief of those who suffer”. Since the care of our patients must be holistic, I, Alphonsine Futi, a Sister Hospitaller of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, reconcile the grace of God with the scientific knowledge learned in medicine.
I am a beneficiary of the congregational training course to offer an integral service capable of relieving the whole person in all his dimensions.
How has cultural diversity influenced the way they address challenges and opportunities at the Benito Menni Mental Health Centre in Douala, Cameroon, and how has it enriched the mental health care they provide?
Over time, the Benito Menni Mental Health Centre has positioned itself as a reference centre in mental health. It receives a large number of patients from various corners of Cameroon, being a country of great diversity at all levels, culturally and linguistically.
The sick person is a whole (bio-psycho-social and cultural), and we must care for them as a whole without forgetting this cultural aspect that influences our care. Linguistic diversity presents us with the challenge of learning two national languages, French and English. This is especially true in view of the migration of the inhabitants of the English-speaking North-East and South-East of Cameroon, where political insecurity reigns.
Ethnic diversity presents various conceptions of mental illness with one thing in common: the mystical aspect of the illness (witchcraft, magic, etc.). This could be the cause of stigmatisation, which is one of the main challenges facing mental health in Cameroon. Faced with this challenge, we do a lot of awareness raising and education on mental health.
Often, it is necessary to seek healing elsewhere, such as in the Church. This is why awareness-raising remains an important work every day because changing mentalities or purifying a culture is not easy.
What are the future plans for the Benito Menni Mental Health Centre and how do you hope it will continue to grow and help the community?
We are interested in several projects, for example, the construction of Betania to welcome street patients before their family reintegration. It is always difficult for us to move from the street to the family without an intermediate reception structure to facilitate this transition. However, due to financial issues, the project is still on hold.
Even so, we try not to give up, we continue to carry out the project of rehabilitation and reintegration of patients.
I would like to emphasise that the rehabilitation project for our street sick brothers and sisters is being carried out by the hospital laity, other collaborators and Sisters, which gives hope for continuity and is supported by the Benito Menni Foundation.
What advice or messages of hope do you have for people facing mental health challenges around the world?
A message of hope.
To my brothers and sisters suffering from mental illness, I sympathise with the pain of your health condition. However, I sympathise even more when our societies treat you with less dignity. The yoke of illness that you bear is heavy, and this is compounded by devaluation, rejection and indignity.
Yet, believe in our closeness, our prayers and our willingness to offer you some encouragement through holistic care. Never experience your suffering alone, talk about it with those around you and ask for help. Go to the health centres as soon as possible.
On the other hand, I would like to thank all those who serve and accompany their mentally ill siblings, friends and loved ones. In particular, to the families of the sick, to the mental health providers and to my Sisters Hospitallers.
Thank you for the difficult task that is yours. Fulfil it with joy and dedication. Thank you for not giving up despite the difficulties encountered. Mental illness is not inevitable. Let us try to demystify mental illness in our societies in order to grow in a more scientific understanding, but also, and above all, in proximity to the man who suffers: this Man created in the image and likeness of God who needs us and our help.