‘Talk to someone’ — challenging mental health perceptions to create safe spaces for dialogues on suicide
With this simple message, mental health Actionist Simon Mphela and his team are trying to save lives. They want you to know that they are available to listen and point you in the right direction if you need help.
In 2020, Simon Mphela’s close friend and neighbour took his own life. This was not the first time that he had experienced the death, by suicide, of someone close to him, but it was then that he realised that he could not sit around and do nothing. He wanted to do whatever he could, in whatever capacity he had, to offer help to anyone who needed it.
A graphic designer by trade, Simon decided to use his creative skills to design a series of T-shirts and a bold information pamphlet aimed at raising awareness about suicide and mental health issues. He sent digital copies out to everyone he knew, printed the pamphlets and started to distribute them around the community.
This simple act of outreach brought him to the attention of others in the community and motivated Simon to start a suicide prevention movement, which he later registered as an NPO called Smaf (Save Men and Flowers). He then recruited a team of dedicated, selfless individuals from around Kagiso township to join him.
Smaf runs a simple but effective programme utilising two weekly social media campaigns and an ongoing public engagement initiative using fashion as a means of activism and connection.
The Monday campaign is called “O grand jo?” (are you fine?), and it encourages people to check in on each other more often and to show love, care and support.
“The weekend is a hectic time. We all think we are happy and excited and doing well. Monday is back to reality. All your anxieties come back. We specifically choose Monday to say ‘Are you okay?’”
Every Thursday they run the “Anti Suicide Campaign” which focuses on mental health awareness and education. Through Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram they provide well-researched mental health tips, suicide prevention and referrals.
Read more in Daily Maverick: Most people thinking about suicide don’t tell anyone. Here’s why and what we can do about it
This may not be anything new, but their real Actionism happens in the space between these messages.
All five volunteers have a range of Smaf-branded T-shirts which they commit to wearing whenever they are in public. These carry simple messages; “Depression Is Real”, “We Don’t Hide, We Confide” and “Choose To Live”, together with the telephone numbers for Sadag (South African Depression and Anxiety Group) and the suicide crisis hotline.
Together with their two cars, branded “Anti-Suicide Campaign”, you would be forgiven for thinking that this is simply a promotional exercise, but the objective is not to advertise their NPO.
The objective is to offer a first point of contact to anyone who needs help with depression, anxiety and suicidal thoughts. To be available, on an ongoing basis, for anyone to approach. To talk, listen and if necessary, pass on the contact details that they need to get help from professionals.
And, this gentle invite to talk, is incredibly effective. Every day strangers will approach them, take photographs of the car or make a comment about the T-shirts. This often turns into a longer conversation which invariably offers a valuable space for help, advice and referral, if needed.
“Just by listening you have helped people. We cannot diagnose, we can suggest to people that if they feel like they need help here is someone to talk to.”
Two other members of the team are Minene Baloi, a fitness instructor, and Ernest Mocumi, a musician. Both of them use their work as an opportunity to talk to people about mental health and, by wearing the T-shirts, they start conversations more easily — and without having to probe. The T-shirt is, in essence, a sign that says ‘I am open to talk about mental health if you need to’.
“For me it was easy, I’m a fitness trainer. People come to me with issues and with physical wellness; it’s so connected to the mind. There is no way to take away the physical part of things. I don’t have to go anywhere, I bring the message to my place of expertise. I get to do what I love but now on a greater scale.”
Simple ideas can often have the most impact. A social media post and a selection of T-shirts may not seem like much, but to be on hand to help anyone in the community who needs you is a generous gesture that can change a life.
Smaf is increasing its reach with a growing radio presence and a series of mental health workshops at local churches. They are looking to broaden their impact by offering their services to schools, workplaces, gyms and government departments around the country. DM
Are you ready to get personally involved in some Actionism? We are challenging 10 people to show their support for SMAF by making themselves publicly available to talk about mental health.
Buy a “Choose To Live” T-shirt, wear it to work and send us a selfie. Our partners at JPEG PRINTING have given us 10 T-shirts at the cost price of R100. We will handle shipping costs. Sizes are limited so get in early with your requests.
Help break the silence around mental health issues, wear the T-shirt in public for one day next week, and you may also help to save a life.
We at The Actionists are excited to launch this Call to Actionism, in collaboration with SMAF. It is the first of many week-long, impact-driven campaigns aimed at engaging members of the public to support valuable grassroots initiatives.
Visit www.theactionists.co.za/smaf to get involved.
The Actionists was launched in early 2023 by photographer Thom Pierce. It consists of on-the-ground problem solvers, community activists, climate campaigners and human rights defenders who engage in direct action. They are people anyone can turn to in difficult circumstances: a growing community of people who care about the future of South Africa. Through a series of photographic stories, Pierce profiles these people. Through a website, discussion forum and social media, the aim is to provide ways for people to get involved.
Nominate Actionists in your circle at www.theactionists.co.za or email [email protected]
This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.