A large number of South Africans are dealing with mental health issues. Fortunately, the conversation is shifting from being unmentionable and off limits to becoming more public and encouraged. We’ve grown, but we can do more.
Three years ago, when I told my oldest sister about my anxiety disorder, she told me to get over it. She said, “Everyone has problems that they are dealing with, you don’t see us crying about it”. I knew then that that conversation was off limits at home. If I couldn’t speak about it to the most educated person in the family, who would understand me?
Two years later, I’m explaining to my cousin why I choose to distance myself from certain family members. I explain that I no longer talk to my sister because whenever my phone rings and I see that it is her who is calling, I panic and I’m unable to answer the phone. But after that, the text messages that follow make me wish that I could evaporate out of this life. My cousin responded, “I’m also dealing with my own problems, but I don’t cry, ke mna. I remain strong”.
The above examples give a clear picture of how difficult it has been to deal with mental health issues in many black families. Where I come from, being strong seems to be the only option we have. Being strong means that we do not show emotion, we do not cry or call out abusive behaviour. If an adult speaks, their word goes and no younger persons have the platform to dispute what has been said or disagree with an adult. So, when you walk in and try to explain depression and anxiety disorders to them, you are being ungovernable. The topic is taboo. We do not speak about things we do not understand. We dismiss them, and we carry on as if they do not exist. We sweep your mental illness under the carpet and we hide it from the neighbours. We hope to god that Mamtolo- the next door neighbour, never hears about this disgrace. “She must not know that my child might need to go to a mental asylum”, whisper our mothers trying to make sure that no one hears about this embarrassing turn of events. If you have a roof over your head, clothes on your back and food to eat, what have you got to be anxious or depressed about?
That was three years ago. My sister and I can hold a conversation now. She tries. I’m guessing the many awareness campaigns and the consistent attempts to remove the stigma from mental health issues are working. Thank you.
Today, my sister leads conversations around listening to people when they speak. She advocates for observing teenagers and their behaviour. She stands against the use of language that will stigmatise a person or whatever issue they are dealing with. On one occasion, she encouraged my aunt to have conversations with her children to avoid future cases of resentment, depression or anxiety disorders. That makes me proud. It means that all of the advocates for mental health and mental health awareness are doing something right. That means that I have someone to confide in at home.
My aunt didn’t understand the advice from my sister, and it ended up being one of those distorted messages from ‘broken telephone’. This tells me that there is still work to be done. However, I cannot sit and not admire the amount of work that has already been done. Although there’s a lot more to be done, we celebrate the growth.
Image sourced online