a disease, not satan

MYSTERY and misunderstanding still surround mental illness despite the fact that an estimated 400million people live with it globally.

Witchcraft and possession by demons are common explanations for mental disorders, especially by those who do not understand them.

This was the case when Nonhlanhla Nthoba of Meadowlands, Soweto, was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2004.

"As a deeply religious person, I thought I was possessed by demons or Satan," Nthoba said. "I did not understand the change in my behaviour and the way I felt."

Nthoba said she was relieved that she could now find an explanation for her erratic behaviour.

"It made it easier for me to accept my condition and explained the way I was behaving. It also meant I could do something about it," Nthoba said.

The first signs of mental illness in Nthoba manifested in unexplainable and often drastic changes in her moods and behaviour.

" I became less active and would do strange things. I would speak out at every chance I got, sometimes pretending I was preaching.

"I would argue with our priest while he was delivering sermons or speak to characters on TV or radio as if they were next to me," she said.

She said she would go into a state of depression, partly because she felt she had not achieved her goals and dreams.

"I was not motivated because I worked as a cleaner despite having qualifications," she said.

Though having studied public relations, events management and theology, she found it difficult to land a job.

Nthoba also experienced bouts of happiness when "it felt as if there was nothing I could not do". These were contrasted with hopelessness and feelings of failure.

"I was gripped by the fear that I did not have the potential to achieve what my peers had. Yet privately I also felt that I was better than everyone else and there was nothing I could not do."

In her manic or excited state, she would feel energised and optimistic but in her depressed state she would feel "there was no reward for all the things I had done".

"I would wake up in the middle of the night to analyse cartoons and go through my old school textbooks. I would assure myself I was not stupid and try to understand why I had not achieved many of the things my peers had."

After a period in hospital to treat her condition Nthoba is now on medication. She has also joined a support group. These, and "keeping busy at work", have helped her deal with the illness and stress of everyday life.

According to Charlene Sunkel of the Central Gauteng Mental Health Society and the Gauteng Consumer Advocacy Movement, people with mental illness face stigma and discrimination.

"People with mental illness constantly face negative media stories about their illness or have problems getting housing or jobs because of their psychiatric history," Sunkel said.

" In other countries people with mental illness can be put in shackles and sent to outlying areas. The stigmatisation of and discrimination against sufferers in any form is not acceptable."