Award 2008 for an “Outstanding achievement in the field of Mental Health Care”

Denied citizens

Sylvester Katontoka with members of Mental Health Users Network of Zambia
Sylvester Katontoka
Sylvester Katontoka (back row, fourth from the left) with members of MHUNZA, the Mental Health Users Network of Zambia

The Swiss Foundation for World Health in collaboration with the World Health Organization has chosen Mr Sylvester Katontoka from Zambia as the laureate of the Award 2008 for an “Outstanding achievement in the field of Mental Health Care”. The award is given to a person whose efforts have led to a significant improvement of the provision of health care for people with mental illness. Mr Katontoka is an internationally very well known leader of psychiatric services users and he has a long record as an advocate for human rights and for innovative mental health reforms in Africa.

Mr Katontoka said: "It is my proposal that I celebrate my Award with my colleagues (patients) in our mental hospital on the Christmas day as a way of sharing with them. During this day patients are left out from the fun, and I want to organize a small party for them to help me celebrate my award".

Sylvester's story

"I was 28, married, and a father of two lovely daughters when a terrifying life came in front of me. Grieving for my children after my wife got involved in an extra-marital affair, I began a six-year roller coaster ride through despair. For 28 days down in my blankets, the meaning of life escaped out of me, with plenty of self-guilt, loss of sleep and appetite. I grew very thin, which led me to suicidal thoughts."

"By the grace of God, I was diagnosed and hospitalized to save me from committing suicide.… The hospital appeared more a prison than a place for my clinical attention. My ward possessed the jail-like structures with the famous seclusion rooms where patients are left to lie on the ice-cold concrete floor covered with urine and faeces and without anything to use as covering. I lived in a very dirty place with overflowing toilets, broken doors and windows, torn uniforms and at times patients were left naked…"

"This experience was too harsh and turned my life upside down, ending up [with my] being socially disabled. I was isolated from my society and often wandered in the wilderness with no food, decent shelter and decent clothes. Stigmatization and discrimination were the order of my days. Destitution became my life."

"Through a hard-fought empowerment programme with the hospital, I started my own business programme for my livelihood…. I started by going on a self-advocacy, talking about injustices in the hospital as an attempt to do away with an outdated and oppressive system…. This action eventually saw my colleagues come on board to make the voice bigger and louder and we disagreed with government, especially on the [issue of] taking power and control over our own lives because of diagnosis."

"Upon seeing our determination in our quest for justice, the government requested that we get registered legally as a non-government organization. This is how the Mental Health Users Network of Zambia (MHUNZA) was born in 2001."

-- from Sylvester Katontoka's testimony at the World Health Organization International Forum on Mental Health, Human Rights and Legislation in Geneva, 2003