By: Ntshediseng Tlooko
I have realised that as South Africans we are more willing to take physical ailments to a doctor, than we are willing to take mental illnesses to a mental health practitioner. I suppose this is primarily because we are not used to talking about mental illnesses. It is very easy for us to talk about our constant headaches and aching backs, than it is to say that we are severely unhappy.
Admitting to feeling like life is not working out for you is taboo in many South African cultures and dare I say many African cultures. Talking about mental health is as taboo as talking about sex.
I have been on a quest to find out why mental health is such a stigmatised subject in many South African cultures. I have not found definitive answers yet, but I am slowly starting to realise a few things.
Firstly, and this is all just my qualitative research, nothing has been proven through rigorous scientific exploration, as a people we do not know how to talk about our feelings. We often we do not know how to say I am angry without expressing it through senseless violent behavior at times. We do not always give a name to the tears that show up unexpectedly and we try to hide them for fear of being labelled as weak.
In some ways we have been taught that we need to be strong. “Teya” (be strong) is a word thrown around on numerous occasions to stop people from feeling. The word is unsympathetically said to a grieving wife who just lost the love of her life. Or to a man who is clinically depressed preferring to sleep all day because it feels unbearable to live. We sometimes view emotions as things that serve to weaken us and if we expose our weaknesses to the world, the world will take advantage of us. I do not blames us as a people for feeling this way about emotions, because for centuries we had to fight for what was rightfully ours: freedom. Therefore to now ask a nation that has had to fight for so long to expose their feelings and talk about them is a huge demand.
Secondly, mental health is automatically associated with insanity. And insanity is perceived as the worst illness. Even HIV is doing better than mental illness. The idea that you have lost your mind means you can no longer contribute meaningfully to society and there is a certain shame that comes with that, that is you find so many mentally ill people locked up in back rooms, hidden from the world and never talked about. There is a sense that if people, especially parents, were to admit that their child has a mental illness then that would mean they have failed as parents. Therefore to hide our own failures, we hide our mentally ill children.
Lastly, one of our biggest problems is that mental illness is not something we can easily relate to as South Africans. Concepts such as depression and bipolar disorder, are not found in our native languages. How are we then expected to know what it all means if it feels foreign to us? It becomes difficult for a person to identify with something they cannot necessarily translate into their own language or understand in their own terms. This is the difficulty with the field of mental health. It has not evolved to a point where it can accommodate other cultures.
I am sure there are many other factors that contribute to the stigmatism that is associated to mental health. And if we do not try to understand these factors and how they continue to disallow people from seeking mental health services, then we will always have the children who are hidden in the back rooms and the adults who are suffering from a depression so unbearable, suicide becomes their only option.
I would love for us to get to a point where, when your back aches you go see a GP. When your tooth aches you go see a dentist and when your life aches you go see a mental health practitioner, with no shame associated to it. You would not leave your foot bleeding for days, after you broke it in an accident. So why do that to your mind?