Actor, media personality and mental health activist, Bonginkosi “Bongs” Ndima (35), launched the ‘Bongs Ndima Foundation’ to raise awareness about mental health within the black community and to offer a “non-judgemental” space for black men to open up and get emotional support.
By: Blacklight writer
Images: Courtesy of Bongs Ndima
Mental health in South Africa, especially among the black community, has become a severe burden. According to recent stats by the South African Depression And Anxiety Group (SADAG), more men die by suicide than women. Men also struggle to seek professional help for any mental issues due to the stigma. Ndima (@bongsndima) aims to do his part to help destigmatise mental illnesses through his foundation which offers mental care services and support.
“Apart from going through my own challenges with depression, I found that most of us black men are misunderstood,” he tells Blacklight.
“Most of us grew up under patriarchy, where we were and still not allowed to show any emotion or vulnerability. We were raised with these unrealistic ideals that a man does not cry, he is supposed to be strong. If one dares to display any form of weakness or some emotion then his emasculated or deemed not man enough.
“We are at a point where we have to ask: When will it ever be okay for us men to display our emotions, or cry without feeling judged? Are there even any spaces where black men can fully be vulnerable?
“We also don’t create safe spaces amongst each other, where we can share our emotional issues. That’s why I was inspired to create a space where men can be free, vulnerable, and be able to ask for help or support. I believe that there is power in vulnerability.”
Amongst many other services offered in the foundation, they have a special Whatsapp chatline, where people can seek professional help from several volunteering mental care practitioners (clinical psychologists, therapists and specialists). Ndima says using the highly accessible chatting app has made it easier to connect with people and give them access to the help they might need in their darkest hour.
“Men generally don’t open up because of all the shame and judgement from society that has been attached to vulnerability. When they contact us they are quite apprehensive and enquire about privacy regulations as a way to protect themselves and to feel safe,” he says.
“I don’t blame them for being sceptical because in our community there is still a lack of education about mental health or mental illness. We still subscribe to the old idea that people who suffer from mental illness are the ones who walk around the streets naked, homeless, and talking to themselves, but there is a wide spectrum of mental illnesses/disorders. And mental illness is not always Ubuloi (witchcraft); it affects ordinary people from all walks of life, regardless of class, age or race.
“Oftentimes, depression comes from pressures of life, and can range from mild to severe. We just have to find a way to understand the layers so we can better offer support and know when to seek support.
Like the many other black men, Ndima reveals that he comes from a broken family and his father was emotionally unavailable. As a result, for most of his youth, he found himself over-compensating and grappling with loneliness. Not having a language for what he was feeling made it impossible to seek help and support – forcing him to face the dark journey alone.
“As much as my mother was doing her absolute best, there was this void which I spent most of my life trying to fill. I was always looking for approval from my father and I had to realize that he was not going to come to the table, no matter how hard I tried. For whatever reason, he was just the person he was and I had to accept that.
“I also grew up thinking he was my biological father, only to find out later that he was my stepfather. It then made sense why we were so disconnected and why he was emotionally unavailable towards me. I had to embark on the hard self-discovery journey alone and find the strength to be the man that I wanted to be. I know of many other people that also come from broken homes who don’t know how to navigate life due to certain variables. As a result, they carry this anger and resentment throughout life. As a result, many are ticking time bombs.”
Now, through his foundation, he hopes to use his influence to eradicate the stigma that plagues depression and mental illness. And he hopes he can serve as a voice of hope for those struggling to overcome life challenges and mental issues. He adds that the foundation also caters to the queer community; because of their lack of access to safe spaces that help them deal with the psychological impact of being rejected in their societies.
Ndima also notes the concerning issue of the lack of access to mental care, especially for black people, as a major hurdle in the country, and makes it hard for people to seek professional help. Since launching the foundation, last year, he has uncovered that the government is still not investing a lot into mental health care. “There are a few psychiatric hospitals, but the service is appalling. To get access to a clinical psychologist, therapist or psychiatrist, you are put on a waiting list.
“There is no sense of urgency or enough personnel to deal with mental emergencies, like suicide. This is one of the reasons we have a high rate of suicides because people struggle to get proper mental care in public hospitals. And the people who are most at risk are men.
“We also have the coronavirus pandemic which further accelerated our mental health issues. And many people do not seek professional help because they don’t have medical aids or access to specialists. We are living in a time of financial uncertainty and people are also unable to get proper mental care. We have a high unemployment rate, the pressure to succeed, and social media which also adds another level of pressure. These are the societal pressures that make people spiral and also the lack of spaces to talk and get support.
Famous for being a fitness promoter, the qualified fitness practitioner and former personal trainer at Virgin Active, says fitness helps him stay centered and provides him with mental strength. For him, fitness is a sacred space that offers him healing when life becomes unbearable.
He adds: “It’s still uncommon to have black people talk freely about mental health and that’s why I decided to step up and contribute to this cause that’s killing our society. I simply want to give people hope and save lives. I want to help educate people because education is the key to breaking the stigma.
“I believe we would not be having this high-rate of suicides if we were more educated about mental health and most times suicides can be prevented, we just have to have the proper resources to be able to cope and find healing. Depression, bipolar and all other mental disorders are illnesses and we need to treat them as such.”
Ndima says the foundation is not funded and relies on volunteers.
To contact the Bongs Ndima Foundation, go to: bnfoundation.org
Whatsapp helpline: 076 690 5884