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Challenges of mental Illness

20 Feb 2018

By Thuthula Sodumo

When Mihlali Jojo’s father passed away in 2013 when she was only 19 years old, she thought that was the end of her life too. She was despondent and suicidal.

“I was diagnosed with depression after my father’s death. I was hospitalised, then some psychiatric tests were done. They came back and it turned out I have bipolar type II disorder, anxiety and borderline personality disorder,” says Jojo, who hails from Kokstad.

She takes medication for the medical condition, but that is no help with her community. “The stigma I get from my community is beyond,” she says. “Some of my family members don’t understand. They call me names because of the breakdowns and episodes I had. I was called ‘uhlanya’ [mad] and some called me a satanist.”

Phumlani Somacala, a senior counsellor at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) based in Johannesburg, told ThisAbility that, “Even today in the 21st century, we still find families or community members labelling people with mental illnesses as crazy, due to the lack of education.

“It’s easy for people in African communities to talk about stress cause they see it as something normal but it’s difficult for them to talk about other mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety, bipolar, schizophrenia, due to the stigma that when you have these illnesses, you are crazy and you have been bewitched because of jealousy or other reasons.

“In most cases this leads to people not seeking help because once they go to the clinic or hospital and being kept in a psychiatric ward or if they get sent to a psychiatric hospital, people in the community will start talking and calling them names,” she says.

According to Somacala, “One of the biggest reasons that lead to mental illness stigmatisation is the fact that in the townships or African communities we have a number of homeless people who are mentally ill which in many cases is due to the fact that they are mentally ill and they don’t get medical help. They become severe to a point where they become violent.”

There are also barriers in accessing quality and adequate healthcare for people suffering from mental illness. People are often misdiagnosed and not given the correct medication.

There is a video on YouTube made by Dennis Mcleod called ‘Black folk don’t go to therapy’. It’s about things black people supposedly don’t do and one of them is that, black people don’t got to therapy and the reasons for that include: “It’s for white people”; “It’s a sign of weakness”; and “It’s a cultural thing, black people prefer the support from family and friends not strangers.” There’s even a view that says since black people survived apartheid, “they can get through anything” and “don’t need to talk to complete strangers about their feelings”.

“The best way to demystify these stigmas is through education,” says Somacala. “One of the things black communities lack is knowledge. When you have a mental illness, it doesn’t mean that you have been bewitched or you are crazy. It’s just a matter of having chemical imbalance in your brain or having emotional problems or psychological problems which lead to you having depression or other mental illnesses.”

Thandolwam Ntongana, a 35-year-old mother of two says, “Every time I would get into a fight with someone, I was always the wrong one and the crazy one because I have mental illness. No one dared to listen to my side of the story. I don’t know how many times I have tried to kill myself. My depression comes and goes depending on certain triggers, even though I am taking medication for it. I still struggle very much with finding peace, but through prayer, I am able to be calm and leave everything to God.”

With psychotherapy and medication some people suffering from mental illnesses can live a normal life.

The Mental Health Care Act of 2002 protects the rights and interests of the mentally ill and, according to the World Health Organisation, it is consistent with international human rights standards.Somacala says, “It is very important for our communities to know the signs of mental illness so that they can seek help for those suffering.

They can also join a support group as a family so that they can be with other people who are going through the same situation and where they will be able to have a safe space to talk with strangers who understand what they are going through.

“They can encourage family members who are suffering from mental illness to get therapy and also take medication because they will be able to help them to function normally. There are mobile counselling clinics in most South African townships with experienced psychologists and counsellors and they are free of charge. They were started by our SADAG psychologist Banetsi Mphunga,” says Somacala.

If you suspect a family member or someone in your community may be suffering from mental illness please contact the SADAG 24 Hour Helpline: 0800 12 13 14. It is open 365 days a year.


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