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Ignorance, insensitivity is killing people living with mental health condition

The writer says in black communities in particular mental health sickness is regarded as a sign that one's ancestors are angry at something, hence the punishment.
The writer says in black communities in particular mental health sickness is regarded as a sign that one's ancestors are angry at something, hence the punishment.
Image: 123rf

In the wake of the deaths of University of Cape Town's professor Bongani Mayosi and Rhodes University rape victim Khensani Maseko, it's important that we all reflect on how we deal with mental health illness.

The manner in which we deal with this condition is not only painful, but is also egregious. Sadly, we don't understand this illness the way we should.

If you doubt what I am saying, look at how Life Esidimeni patients were dealt with by the department of health in Gauteng. Men and women were treated with disrespect and disdain. No empathy at all.

One of Mayosi's friends, Dr Fundile Nyathi, told one newspaper that "people don't understand the whole concept of mental health. "They think mental illness means you are mad."

Nyathi went on to say: "They don't know the difference between somebody who has a mood problem of which depression is, and psychotic people you see picking up papers in the streets; people who have lost a sense of reality."

He went on to elucidate his point by adding: "If your sister comes to you and says I have depression, the point of reference is that depression is a mental illness and therefore she is mad, then that is like bringing shame to the family."

It's true what Nyathi is saying about the way we respond to the phenomenon of mental health.

In black communities in particular, mental health is regarded as a sign that one's ancestors are angry.

We seek treatment from unsavoury characters whose sole purpose is to make us poorer without offering any tangible, credible and unscientific health advice.

Think back to how HIV-positive people were ill-treated and badly advised at the onset of the disease.

Most of them were assured that the disease was not a medical condition, leading to millions getting discouraged from taking treatment like ARVs. This resulted in hundreds of thousands of people succumbing to the illness.

This is exactly our attitude today in regards to mental health. I hope the deaths of Mayosi and Maseko will be a wake-up call for our nation.

I recently asked Palesa Morabe, a 27-year-old woman who struggled and conquered mental health sickness on what this condition was.

She said: "Depression is not a choice or an attitude, it is a result of chemical imbalance in the brain. It is a condition that weighs a person's spirit down no matter how much they try to uplift themselves."

According to her, depression is a range of unpleasant thoughts and feelings happening at the same time. She explains: "What happens around an individual has a significant impact on the severity of the depression especially the kinds of energies around the individual.

"It is unfortunate that many people who find themselves in this deep and dark place of emptiness are subjected to maltreatment by those closest to them."

She said when those struggling with mental health sickness didn't speak up, they suffer in silence.

"But when we voice our agony it is often met with ignorance and insensitivity that leaves us with a feeling of undeserving of good things. I am certain that I wouldn't have suffered the same level of despair and humiliation if I was surrounded by more humility and kindness."

She concluded: "It is the Palesas of this world and the millions of those that remain voiceless and faceless that mental health can be beaten if we don't choose to bury our heads in the sand."

Seeking knowledge will go a long way in preventing another episode of the Esidimeni tragedy.

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