Connecting with Senegalese partners about mental health often lead to similar conversations on the impact of stigma, the challenges of receiving adequate support, and the need to encourage conversations that heighten awareness on this topic. Discussions center on low reporting of suicide cases and how they are rarely shared openly because of deep religious implications on impacted families including the inability to provide a proper burial and significant judgment from others. From hospital hallways to NGO offices, everyone agreed there is much work to be done in a system where therapy and medication are lacking at all levels.
At the same time, daily life in Senegal offers a glimpse into how informal systems exist, as people shared about a culture that strives to build neighborly connections where people work together for common good. Offering support to others is tangible here. It is found at tables during family meals, in daily group prayers, and with a concept I have grown to love – TERANGA!
While I believe I could knock on doors of family or friends in a crisis to find support, in most cases, I just wouldn’t do it. The idea of “just showing up” without a plan seems intrusive and a bit disrespectful. Teranga topples those norms by making it ok to just show up. Teranga, which is known as the act of hospitality is a true open door policy for foreigners and friends where people are welcomed for last minute visits with drinks and open conversations. Woven within the guise of hospitality, there are tenets of mental health support for all involved.
I made lovely friends in Senegal who gave me a slice of their everyday lives. As we traveled to local destinations for errands, they would often pull the car over for a quick visits along the way. During these times, and since I don’t speak French, I was able to deeply hone into the support offered during these moments of connectedness. The idea that “you matter” was clear upon arrival as people were welcomed with open arms and quickly-assembled drinks. Even as a guest, I grew to love bright greetings and the “always ready” hospitality. Conversations seemed light with the deep listening as important as the stories being shared. As the chatting and laughter commenced, the environment seemed warm with the time and place offering a natural space for family leaders to share wisdom and insights with young people who sat within the mix.
Throughout my time in Senegal, I would lie awake thinking about the mental health connections that are deeply embedded in the culture I observed. While people say, they do not have mental health support here, there is something incredibly hopeful in the intuitive care and support offered through Teranga.
As a final thought, I do realize while talking about people throughout my journey, my perspective is limited by my own experiences. I am in no way implying that these are the experiences of every Senegalese person or that I have captured depth in my awareness, but this is what I observed during my short journey into Senegal.