A sick nation in denial is of greater danger to itself
Most of us lay people usually only notice mental illness when the sufferer exhibits unusual behaviour. That is, we say somebody is mad or is a lunatic when that person outwardly manifests some form of schizophrenia or we recognise that a person suffers from mental illness when they have a nervous breakdown.
And we do not see or hear of many such people in our everyday life. It is therefore shocking to us ordinary people to learn from the South African Depression and Anxiety Group that one-third in our population suffers from one form of mental illness or another.
This means that a whooping 20-million of our people have mental ailments. It means a third of the people we interact with in our families, at work, learning institutions or neighbourhoods are mentally sick.
For most of us, this is shocking. Even more frightening is the revelation that up to 75% of these sick people are not getting any kind medical treatment.
Celebrated Zimbabwean novelist and social activist, Tsitsi Dangarembga, has revealed that about a fifth of the Zimbabwean population is afflicted by some mental illness of one description or another.
Dangarembga ascribed this to the fact that for centuries, Zimbabweans have lived under conflict or stressful conditions of varying degrees of severity.
There were wars among the various indigenous ethnic groups, followed by wars of conquest by the colonialists and then the similarly brutal war of liberation.
But conflict continued after independence and that is the case to this day.
This means that successive generations have lived under these stressful conditions, many of them passing the resultant depression to their descendants.
The South African population has lived under conditions of conflict for nearly 400 years. Yes, we too had conflicts among the indigenous groups that were followed by wars of conquest and then the long years of sustained settler colonial rule.
Resistance against oppression was accompanied by frequent uprisings in different parts of the country, shootings, detentions, torture, imprisonments, exile and armed combat.
The 70s, 80s and the 90s were particularly brutal, with soldiers occupying townships, mass murders, necklacing, burning of houses and a lot of internal displacements of many individuals.
Obviously, this was traumatic for a lot of people and must have left many of us psychologically wounded and scarred. Yet, no attempt was made by us after the arrival of democracy to treat those in our midst who might be suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
We have anecdotally learnt that some of our students who participated in the Fees Must Fall movement were left traumatised by those events. Some dropped out of their studies and others were disowned by their families.
The deaths of the legendary Professor Bongani Mayosi and Khensani Maseko recently, brought the problem of mental illness into sharp relief. Universities and the rest of society are not good at dealing with such issues in an appropriate manner.
Unemployment, poverty, inequality and other fault lines in our society continue to subject our citizens to various stresses.
It seems, if we want to create a more normal, settled and harmonious society with less mental illness, we should do a few things. To start with, we should calm down a bit, do whatever needs to be done with less violence.
Secondly, we should be better sensitised to the many manifestations of mental illness and treat it. More fundamentally, we should cure the deep fault lines in our society, such as poverty and unemployment. It is a debilitating environment that is hurting the mental condition of our society.