Help ease pain of mental illness if you can

Help ease pain of mental illness if you can.
Help ease pain of mental illness if you can.
Image: 123RF/lculig

My paternal family has a yearly Easter tradition. We meet to go to the graveyards to "visit" our loved ones, flowers in hand.

We then proceed to a designated household where we have lunch, drink and end it off with Methodist hymns.

I cherish the day for a different reason; it is the one time of the year I get to catch up with my cousins. In our catchup this past Easter, I learnt of the death of one of my cousin's friends, a suicide.

And, it got me thinking yet again of the silence that sits, large and smug, in families surrounding issues of mental health.

This silence not only makes it difficult to talk about the scourge of mental illness but its extent and the different versions and faces of it.

Growing up, I used to frequent the village that my mom comes from. One of my favourite things to do while I was there was walking with my mother's cousins to my grandmother's sister's house, located in the valley of the village.

Other than skipping and counting the near-white rocks on our path, there is a feature that continues to haunt me some 20-odd years later. A few houses away from our destination was a house whose yard used to have an impressive spread of maize during harvest time as well as cattle and goat kraals.

Just behind the kraals sat a rusty shack whose inhabitant, although treated like an animal, was very much human. This man used to be kept in chains, whose extent only allowed him enough room to get to the fence just by where we passed.

I don't remember if he could speak, I used to be very scared of him. There were different versions of the reasons why he was being treated like that by his own family.

Some said he was possessed by demons and some said he was a zombie and being used for evil deeds by the family.

Now, as an adult, my thinking is if I were to keep a zombie, surely I'd keep it out of sight? Knowing all that I know now, that scene has mental illness written all over it, as well as a family that was uninformed as well as ill-equipped to handle the situation, or simply uninterested. In a poverty-stricken village in the late '80s to early '90s, such a reaction to that kind of situation is not out of place.

Where it is out of place is 2018 South Africa. Mental illness is not a one size fits all, and it also presents differently, it could be anything from depression, anxiety to schizophrenia. It is important to have conversations with your loved ones about their specific ailment, what triggers it and do your best to support them. Learn to watch their patterns so that it is easy to spot if they are in a particularly bad space. I am not saying that all suicides can be prevented, but let's prevent the ones we can.

Lastly, if you know that someone has mental health issues, your silence around it could easily make them feel like the chained man from my childhood. Alone, dejected and scared. Don't let that happen on your watch.

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