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Trauma of AIDS orphans neglected – Irish missionary seeks to decriminalise suicide

Brother Aidan Clohessy on the site of new psychiatric college in Mzuzu, Malawi. He is now planning a refuge for homeless AIDS orphans in the capital, Lilongwe. Photo by Amy Colley.An Irish missionary is setting up a refuge to rescue hundreds of AIDS orphans from the streets of a major African city. County Tipperary native Brother Aidan Clohessy of the St John of God order is currently fundraising for the €2m facility in Lilongwe city in Malawi where one in eight adults live with the deadly virus.

The 70-year-old believes kids who lose their parents can be driven to depression and even suicide if they don't get access to professional counselling and treatment. He said: "Kids who lose a mother or father to HIV or AIDS are at a very vulnerable stage of their lives and their immediate priority is survival. "But at the same time they are suffering from post traumatic stress as well as going through a grieving process for their parents. There is a trauma there that is not being treated and you see behavioural problems such as depression, dropping out of school and they may fall into alcohol abuse or smoking marijuana or even suicide."

Brother Aidan, who was born in Clonmel, was principal of St Augustine’s special school in Blackrock, Dublin for 23 years before deciding to make the big move to Malawi in 1993. Since then he has set up a base in Mzuzu city in the north of the country which includes a psychiatric hospital, an addiction treatment centre and a new third-level training college for mental health nurses and counselors. However the energetic Br Aidan is now switching his focus to orphans roaming the streets of the capital, Lilongwe where one in eight adults are living with HIV/AIDS.

He said many people in Malawi still don't realise that children can have mental health problems and often blame such conditions on local witchcraft.

He is also lobbying to have suicide decriminalised in Malawi and added: "When somebody attempts suicide here, the police will arrest the person and not even seek any medical attention, they'll have them in court and then in prison. There also appears to be a lot of suicide among women perhaps because they have such hard lives."

Brother Aidan, whose work has been supported in the past by the Irish Aid overseas development agency, also encouraged volunteers with suitable skills to come to Malawi to help him provide services for vulnerable kids. "I hope that people come out with realistic aims, to share practical skills with local people and leave a meaningful legacy behind when they go home. "Volunteerism is only sustainable if there is a lasting impact left behind."

The missionary also helps run weekly radio programmes that answer listeners' questions about mental health issues. "We are constantly lobbying for a change in attitudes and terminology to mental health. But over the 18 years, I believe we have had an impact," he added.

For more information on Brother Aidan's work in Malawi, contact John MacManus of the St John of God Order in Dublin at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

Senan Hogan was in Malawi on a trip funded by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund exploring how Irish Aid is funding thousands of local women to grow Irish potatoes .

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