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The need to overcome the stigma of mental health diseases

Reflecting on a friend’s suicide, Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya argues that those suffering from depression often cry out for help, but their cries are not heard. In particular, he relates his experiences of being told that stress and depression are “white men’s diseases,” often making it difficult for black mental health sufferers to find the help they need.

An old friend – probably an acquaintance now given the length of time we had not seen each other or spoken – died recently. Consensus was that he killed himself. I later learnt this was the third time he had tried to end his life. Naturally the incident left me saddened, and I was even more devastated to hear about how he died.

As someone who has had to battle depression myself, I think I have an idea of what it feels like in those moments when the desire to “end it all” seems an attractive option.

Stress and depression is (not just) for whites

I must point out that my friend was black. Ordinarily, his race would be irrelevant, but in this context it is worth mentioning. There is a widely held view that stress and related matters are not “black issues”. 

I would even guess that as a black male in a patriarchal society, which breeds super, even toxic masculinities, my friend may have felt that there was no space for him to be vulnerable.

Former President Jacob Zuma was criticised all round when he said: “I don’t get stressed. Stress is a white man’s disease and that is why a term such as stress did not exist in the Zulu language”.

In the aftermath of the news of my friend’s death, many of those I interacted with said the same thing: “Why did he not speak to anyone?” In my experience, people living with depression do talk about it. They express it all the time, even if sometimes it is not in the exact words those listening expect to hear.

… people living with depression do talk about it … even if sometimes it is not in the words those listening expect to hear.

Those who ask, “Why didn’t he tell someone?” probably want to hear the person suffering from depression saying: “Hey dude, I am suffering depression and sometimes I think I would be better off dead. And I have this crazy admiration for those people who have the guts to end it all.”

This is unlikely to happen. While I do not know for sure that my friend suffered from depression, it is not unreasonable to assume that someone who tried twice before to end their own lives, would have suffered from some form of mental illness.

I also doubt that he did not tell anyone that he was suffering from an illness that eventually won over his body and mind. It is just that people simply listen, but do not hear.

In preparing to write this article, I had a conversation with a few people who confirmed for me that often people neither listen, nor create conditions where speaking out is encouraged.

People tend to generalise that “everyone has problems” or how one is “mad to want to end their lives when they have so many other good things going for them” or that they seem to have “a happy family”.

Christianity and hope over despair

Christianity, particularly its message of life defeating death, probably holds promise for those who cannot access or afford professional mental healthcare.

Jesus raised the dead and exorcised demons whose hold could be likened to suffering extreme forms of mental illness. He himself finally rises from the dead.

Church spaces may sometimes create the perception that when life’s difficulties become overwhelming, it is the result of a lack of faith.

It is critical that we all learn that nobody is too black or too Christian to suffer mental illness, or to even contemplate suicide. The gospels tell us that Jesus himself experienced anxiety such that “his sweat became like drops of blood falling on the ground” (Luke 22: 44).

We need to overcome the stigma of depression and anxiety in our communities and in our church. Mental health sufferers should not have to carry that cross in silence. They need access to professionals who can provide the correct treatment or help the patient to manage times of stress and depression.

We need to overcome the stigma of depression and anxiety in our communities and in our church.

Faith communities must lead the charge and create the types of spaces that are a little more attentive to the wounded and the weeping even when they cannot see the tears.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) provides mental health support and advocacy. They operate a free call centre from 8am to 8pm, Monday to Sunday (including public holidays) on 011 262 6396 or phone number: 0800 21 22 23/ emergency number: 0800 12 13 14 or SMS 31393.

* The opinions expressed here by Spotlight.Africa contributors and editors are their own and not official statements of the Society of Jesus in South Africa or of the Catholic Church unless explicitly stated.

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Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya
Fikile-Ntsikelelo Moya is an independent journalist and former editor of The Mercury, The Witness and Sowetan and a senior journalist at many other mainstream South African newspapers.

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