It is easy to dismiss the many horrendous acts of violence we hear and read about as simply the work of brutes, crazies or even racists. Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya looks at what the deeper reasons may be for this. He suggests that these explain more clearly the levels of violence and anger in our society. He does not try to justify bad behaviour, rather, he wants to help us recognise that beneath the surface there might be much more going on which says something not just about the individual but the whole of our society.
Earlier this month, social media showed a series of pictures of a man on the rooftop of a shack, with a baby in his arms, negotiating with police officers.
The man threatened to throw his own child from the roof if the authorities went ahead and demolished his – and other neighbouring – shacks where they had invaded land in Port Elizabeth.
The man eventually flung the child off the roof but happily the child was caught by a police officer and spared any injuries. The child is now in a place of safety and the man in custody.
In another incident, Johannesburg media reported that a local restaurant owner allegedly poured boiling water on his employee whom he accused of stealing some cooked oxtail from a pot.
The employee denied the charge, He says that he helped himself to some gravy left in the pot as they were preparing to wash the pot. He accused his boss, a white male, of racism and vowed to not rest until the man was behind bars.
Soon thereafter, a former employee called a radio station that had reported on the story and told the station how the restaurant owner had changed for the worst, from being a “father figure” to a miserable and easily irritable figure since his wife was murdered in an armed robbery.
The radio station caller changed the complexion of the story. Suddenly there was an appreciation that there might be a wider context around the incident, even if this was not a justification or condoning of the incident itself.
At the time of writing, there had been no reports of the possible mental state of the father who threw his child from the shack roof.
The Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality’s Human Settlements head, Nqaba Bhanga, appeared on national television news calling for harsh measures against land invaders, such as the father of the child, and promised they would be removed.
The question that needs to be asked is what could possibly make a father want to play Abraham and sacrifice his child in exchange for a shack? Has society jumped too quickly and easily to the conclusion that the man is a brute undeserving of being a parent?
The answers to these questions are really to speculate. They do, however, seem to present some symptoms which indicate that these individuals are living with psychological trauma.
“Incidents do not just happen in isolation,” says Kirsten Thomson a mental health practitioner in private practice.
“Due to poverty, life stresses as well as multiple and ongoing experiences of traumatic events, people can be at great risk of being emotionally overwhelmed, reactive and traumatised”
According to a long standing study, the Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale for adults and non-adults, the death of loved one and moving house are considered to be some of the most stressful and potentially traumatic events in a person’s life. Without proper treatment or even acknowledgment of such trauma, those living through the trauma are often likely to cause harm to others.
A poor person’s chance of accessing mental health assistance are low.
“In the public sector there is one psychiatrist for every 375 000 people and the majority of people do not have medical aid, they cannot afford the cost of psychologists and psychiatrists working in the private sector,” says Dr Annemarie Paulin-Campbell, a spiritual director trainer at the Jesuit Institute. She wrote her PhD on the interface between psychology and spirituality.
“NGO’s such as the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) and Lifeline, which do excellent work in the public sector, are battling to stay open as funding becomes more and more difficult to source,” says Paulin-Campbell.
Thomson agrees. “Mental health support for the general public is not well funded or supported. There are people who are working really hard in this area though there are limited resources and professionals to assist people. Life Esidimeni is an example of how resources for people diagnosed with mental health disorders are mismanaged. The need is even greater for those needing mental health support.”
That however does not necessarily mean that educated or wealthier people are more likely to access mental health help when they need it.
“I agree that the wealthier and educated may have more access to mental health support, knowing about it, being able to pay for it and having a choice of therapist”, says Thomson.
“Accessing mental health support is often a voluntary decision, there is a stigma attached to mental health support no matter what class you are from.”
Celebrity news magazine People reports in its latest issue how multi-award winning popstar Mariah Carey has struggled with bipolar II disorder for nearly 20 years.
In the interview, Carey told the magazine she was diagnosed in 2001 but “I did not want to believe it”. She thought she had a severe sleep disorder which she dealt with by overworking herself.
“It is seen as being weak and some people say ‘how will talking help?’ or people may not realise that after a traumatic event they can access help that will assist them in processing the feelings and impact of the experience,” says Thomson.
While it is easy to see how life’s challenges can cause stress, success in one’s chosen field of endeavour can or does protect one from the disposition to mental illness. Take multi Olympics swimming champion, Michael Phelps.
The American swimming superstar who won gold medals at the 2000, 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics has recently spoken about his struggle with depression and confessed to having contemplated suicide.
“There was one point, I didn't want to be alive,” the legendary swimmer told CBS News in a candid new interview (17 April), revealing just how bad post-Olympic depression can get for elite athletes.
“As Olympians, you set four years to build up to this moment. And then, after it’s over, you’re kind of lost in a way,” he explains. “You don't really know what to do. You don't know where to go. You don't know who to talk to. And a lot of us do suffer from depression.”
Thomson says: “In South Africa, we also need to recognise the levels of past and current trauma that individuals and communities experience has a direct impact on individuals, their mental health and how they can respond to situations, especially stressful situations. This has an impact on society as a whole.”
What can church communities do?
“Parish and church communities are in an excellent position to run simple awareness campaigns on issues like depression and suicide prevention. Churches are also ideally placed to help with the de-stigmatisation of mental health issues,” says Paulin-Campbell.
“Those in the community who people turn to for help – priests, religious, catechists and spiritual directors – need a sufficient understanding of the mental health resources available and how these can be accessed,” she says.