Mental health talk: a dialogue part I

I do not know the accurate statistics of the prevalence of mental illnesses in South Africa, mostly because this particular illness is not a priority for the country. The government seems to be doing close to nothing to investigate, raise awareness and provide information, resources, and access to assistance with mental health services. Instead, when students, workers and other members of the general public commit suicide, we gasp in shock and move on to the next viral story.

It doesn’t help that mental illnesses are rather received with a lot of negative stigmas and discrimination, particularly in the black communities. You’re either forced to go to pastor so and so, who will pray out the demons in you or you are dismissed for fishing for unnecessary attention. There’s also this absurd expectation that you’re only really suffering from such if you look like you’re from a certain level of the poverty line.

But there are millions of people who look a lot more together on the outside but they suffer from mental illnesses. It really does not discriminate. I’m a 26-year-old Cape Town-based working professional journalist and blogger, and part-time massagist and hairstylist. I was diagnosed with depression and anxiety a few years back and it’s been a ride.

In a quest to understand where we are in the black community with mental health, I had a discussion with other womxn about mental health.

Thabile Mpe, a 24-year-old Pretoria-based part-time tutor and full-time financial Management student, who founded Mental Wealth ZA, a platform where “people who don’t know where to start can voice out their concerns regarding the avenues that are available to them. Whether it’s finding a psychiatrist or a clinic so that they can get to a point where they are diagnosed.”

Mamaili Mamaila of Mamaili Online previously interviewed Thabile, and she asked whether platforms like South Africa Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) and a couple of other similar platforms are really enough?

“I’m going to have to say yes and no. Yes in the sense that if you do research, you find that there are public facilities and other avenues available to people. But no, because people don’t know about it.”

The Johannesburg-based journalism student and b/vlogger notes that mental health affects a lot more people than we are often willing to realise. The 22-year-old says based on her personal experiences, opening up was the biggest challenge and from my own experiences, I know opening up is the hardest to do as you cannot anticipate people’s reactions and actions thereafter.

And 29-year-old Maina Munthali, Malawi based poet, blogger, and nursing program student, agrees and adds that people like to trivialise the condition or believe that it is made up.

Here’s what everyone had to say:

What were you diagnosed with and when was this?

Simamkele: Depression in 2014 and later realised I also suffer from anxiety.

Thabile:  I was diagnosed with bipolar type II in July 2016.

Mamaili: I was diagnosed with clinical depression in 2015.

Maina: I have not been diagnosed but concluded that I suffer from depression.

Did/do you ever have suicidal thoughts or self-harm? Elaborate?

Simamkele: It’s more complex than that, I am sometimes plagued with thoughts that perhaps ceasing to exist is better than the pain I live with but I never actually want to kill myself. I did, however, take painkillers to try and numb the pain and as means to get quick slumber. But I quickly notified this as a problem and stopped.

Thabile: I have never had thoughts of self-harm, but suicide was a large part of me for years. I would think of how to die quickly. How my flat wasn’t clean enough for me to die because my mother would be disappointed. It was a weird, disjointed feeling. I have never made an attempt on my life, only because I know my death would kill my mother. She is literally the only reason I am alive.

Mamaili: Yes. I have previously had self-harm thoughts since 2014. However, in June 2017 that is where I seriously considered taking my life. I overdosed on a concoction of painkillers, anxiety medication, and sleeping pills.

Maina:  I have suffered from suicidal thoughts, and have self-harmed.

Did you know what it was that you were going through prior diagnosis?

Simamkele: To a certain extent I did but I didn’t want to accept or even think about it.

Thabile: I knew I was severely depressed but did not think of anything beyond that, certainly not a mood disorder. It took retrospection and conversations with my mother to realise that I’ve always been “moody”.

Mamaili: Absolutely not.

Maina: When I was younger I did not know what I was going through. Only realised that I had a problem when I came across someone who noticed I had a problem and later researched on the matter.

What motivated you to consult a medical professional?

Simamkele: I felt like I was suffocating to my death. The people around me were going through a lot and I felt like I was shouldering all the burden and it felt a little too heavy for me to carry. I was crying daily and having intense breakdowns in front of strangers and all I wanted to do was bathe in the darkness and cave in bed alone.

Thabile:  I basically had a breakdown. I was constantly physically sick (flu-like symptoms that hit me 3 times in 2 months) and was crying all the time. I was doing winter school for a calculus module I had failed once before and I was just a mess. I somehow managed to pass it, though.

Mamaili: I constantly had migraines which my sleeping and eating patterns were severely affected by. After several check-ups with my doctor, nothing she was recommending seemed to work so she conducted a few tests which confirmed my diagnosis.

Maina: (Refer to the first question.)

What kind of support system did you have then? And now?

Simamkele: I didn’t have any support apart from my therapist. I still don’t, my family is not in anyway shape or form supportive, in fact, I removed myself from them because they were adding to my situation, I see them from time to time but prefer less time with them as they are a trigger point. None of my friends are in tune with my mental illness, I guess I do not show the signs of a mentally ill person and I just appear together but with the moods, they rather steer clear of when they show face. I’ve accepted the fact that the only support I’d get is through therapy which I can pick up again when I see the need to. For now, I’m relying on myself and I suppose, through reading material relating to mental illness.

Thabile: I have always had a strong support system. My mental illness manifested itself the most in my academics, and my family was always understanding. They understood that certain circumstances had just made me really depressed, and they understand that university is difficult. I honestly couldn’t thank them enough.

My mother is in tune with my mental health. She can preempt anxious situations for me and shelters me when she can (mostly for stuff involving family). She is absolutely amazing. Beyond the mental health stuff, I just really like her as a person. So even if I don’t explicitly say what’s bothering me, her presence heals me. I learn with her, I laugh with her, I live through her. She is my north star. I know she worries about me 24/7 (always had, but it’s especially hectic now post-diagnosis) and I always need her to know that I could not imagine a better mother, caregiver, shelter, or human being. Not even if I tried.

My friends. Absolutely amazing. They are there for me without question. They take care of me when my mother can’t. As a group, we have experience with mental illness (even outside of me) and I think that makes it easy for us to deal with supporting the other.

I am extremely privileged and I constantly acknowledge that. I am much luckier than most.

Mamaili: My virtual and long-time friends were my greatest supporters. I thought that it was something I would soon be able to brush off so I did not even bother to even tell my parents who could have probably offered life-changing support at that time. After my suicide attempt in 2017, my parents became aware of my diagnosis and they did everything in their power, financially, emotionally and otherwise to ensure that I get the help that I need. They are still very supportive of me in every way.

Maina: My support system was my girlfriend. She helped me learn how to cope with my depression and understand it. She still is my support system and I’m glad to say so is my older sister now.


The second part of the conversation is published soon, keep your eyes peeled on the page.


This article is written in collaboration with Mamaili Online. Follow her on @mamailionline on Twitter.