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South Africa is in a mental health crisis, and we all need to see ourselves in Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka

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Wandile Mthiyane is a political analyst, adjunct professor and an architect who holds a master’s in architecture from Andrews University in the US. He is an Obama Foundation Leader and the CEO of social impact architecture firm, Ubuntu Design Group, The Anti-Racist Hotdog and Ubuntu Architecture Summer Abroad Design Justice school. Follow him on Twitter & Instagram: @wandileubuntu Kristin Brig-Ortiz is a PhD candidate in the history of medicine at Johns Hopkins University in the US. She is currently in Durban performing research on the history of water management in South African port cities. Follow her on Twitter: @PoxyGraduate

Mental health is frequently undermined and reduced to little more than a Twitter trend, that crops up periodically if a celebrity commits suicide or when another woman is gruesomely murdered by their partner or family member. We need to do better. Second to land and finances, mental health should be one of the key reparations for black South Africans.

My (Wandile) mental health problems kicked off in 2017. I had just returned to the US from South Africa, excited to be back after a year building a house for a family in need. As the year progressed, I started to lose total interest in architecture, struggling to hold a train of thought. I couldn’t concentrate on my academic work or even pray. Only on the soccer pitch was I able to maintain mental clarity. So, I started skipping class weeks at a time. I told my professors how I felt and asked them to remove all my articles and other work hanging in the halls because seeing them triggered my depression.

Another school probably would have expelled me, but Andrews University School of Architecture was willing to work with me in my distress. I still remembered the struggles I faced in building a home for a family in South Africa: fighting with municipal corruption and fundraising with white groups that racially profiled me. In the middle of all that stress, my grandmother passed away. She was the last pawn standing that had authority over my life, that raised me, and that I loved.

The year before, I had just graduated with my bachelor’s, and my dad passed away. Four years before that, I was excited to go to study overseas, and my mom passed away. The more I tried to make a difference in other people’s lives, the more I lost the people who made a difference in my life. I began to hate architecture because it represented a level of success that I associated with loss. The dissonant stress of loss and success meant I could not concentrate anywhere except the soccer field. I was, so to speak, trying to win a chess game without the pawns I needed to win.

To me, my lost family members represented the value of the paper currency. They were the gold that I lost — I had the paper, but it was worthless without the gold to back it. To prevent myself from falling deeper into depression, I asked one of my friends at Andrews about getting me a job as the school mascot because that best represented how I felt. As the mascot, I went out in public dancing and celebrating. Inside I was dying. Being “Andy” helped me process what I was going through by living out how I felt versus how the world saw me.

That’s why it hurts me so much to see the criticism and the hate that was spewed towards Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles when they dropped out of the French Open and the Olympics. Why do we judge and critique them for something they cannot control? When we expect people to perform at the best level for our entertainment, even as they struggle with mental health, we blame them for all the tragedies that have led them to this point.

In my case, other people’s lack of empathy led me to a dark place I didn’t choose. I wanted to be an architect but not in the dark place I ended up. I see this in criticism of Osaka and Biles, that they chose an athletic career so they have to deal with the consequences. People blame the mental health problems on the career choice instead of seeing the mental health problems for what they are: the involuntary invisible ankle injury that most of us go through in this game of life.

Depending on your access to support, history of discrimination and family background, that injury either propels you to the next phase of life or it is a career-ending nightmare and everything in between. And other people heavily contribute to which direction we take.

The negativity and sheer lack of empathy amazed Kristin and me. So much of it revolved around the players’ blackness, but not in the right way. Critics called them weak and childish, blaming their black bodies for letting down their countries. Meanwhile, mental health is a significant problem in the global black community.

One study out of Columbia University has highlighted how “the black community suffers from an increased rate of mental health concerns, including anxiety and depression.” It found that American black adults alone were “20% more likely to experience serious mental health problems” than in other racial groups. A similar situation exists in South Africa, where black communities continue to struggle with an overwhelming number of mental health disorders with few economic and medical resources to alleviate them.

Yet when people perform research on mental health in South Africa’s black communities, they often cite cultural taboos, perpetuating the idea of “savage Africans” and their deliberate lack of biomedical knowledge. There are no tangible stats or evidence for these claims. In a country ravaged by gender-based violence and the trauma of a violent discriminatory past, deliberately ignoring the black community’s increasing mental health crisis continues that violence.

South Africa should be pouring resources into researching the state of black and the country’s mental health to provide customised solutions instead of perpetuating apartheid-era medical differences. Mental health has been reduced to a Twitter trend that comes across every few months when a celebrity commits suicide or when another woman is gruesomely murdered by their partner or family member. We need to do better! Second to land and finances, mental health should be one of the key reparations for black South Africans.

Biles and Osaka’s situations expose how mental health issues can also occur if you come from a privileged background. A white American female, I (Kristin) faced an unsettling lack of empathy when my parents went through their divorce. No matter the issues between my parents, my family was always there, reliable if not stable. Even when my parents periodically separated, they always returned to some kind of normal, and our family dinners and vacations and movie nights continued. Since I grew up far from most of my extended family, my four-person nuclear family and our home in Knoxville, Tennessee was my primary comfort zone.

When I went to college in Charleston, South Carolina, my family became my mainstay as I weathered traumatic social relationships, difficult class loads, and a radically different climatic environment that gave me a kind of seasonal affective disorder. All of this exacerbated my generalised anxiety disorder. When this anxiety reached an untenable point in my junior year, I not only started going to see a campus therapist, but also drove the six hours home for a weekend once a month. Like Wandile, my family was my life’s anchor. I sometimes even sacrificed time with my boyfriend, and later fiancé, to be with my family.

So, when my parents’ 2016 separation turned into a divorce, the bottom fell out of my identity, triggering a dark mental health turn. The moment my dad filed the divorce papers, my childhood and conception of home shattered, sending me into a spiral of anxiety and situational depression that most affected my personal relationships. I buried myself in my Master’s thesis, which took place in colonial South Africa, a place to hide from my contemporary American life. I dedicated more time to my research-activist work on the College of Charleston’s Women’s Health Research Team.

But beyond my fiancé, who had gone through a harsh parental divorce himself, no one in my life quite understood. I heard the same harsh question in a number of ways: “You’re 23, why should you care about your parents’ divorce?” “Why can’t you separate yourself from the situation, especially since you’re a grad student?” “You’re getting married, so why is this bothering you so much?”

Those people who have been through divorce never had to ask those questions. They just knew. Everyone else showed little concern. They assumed that because I was a legal adult, I should have been more at peace with it.

But the truth is, it is difficult to go through any loss as an adult. Psychologically it hurts you as a child, certainly, but it can equally psychologically impact affected adults. The lack of empathy from the people nearest me was astounding, just as it astounded Wandile in his situation. And it continues to astound us both that other people can lack that empathy for those who need it most, especially those like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles who are brave enough to speak publicly about it. As much as we like to think mental health is no longer a stigmatised subject, public reactions to it expose just how such perceptions remain.

Dealing with mental health problems is never easy, but there are ways out, even if you don’t have a professional therapist available. I (Wandile) started hosting potlucks with friends and playing a lot of football. I (Kristin) threw myself into academic and activist work. We started caring more about listening to other people’s stories than speaking our own. As I (Wandile) saw it, I wanted to play defence, not offence. Our experiences made us more compassionate, more empathetic to others experiencing loss, trauma and mental health issues. We could never go back to who we were. Once we realised that, we understood that we needed to grow into our new identities.

Ultimately, though, you will need more than informal therapy. Good therapists are like good pastors: few and far between, but when you find a good one, you stick with them. The government and medical practitioners more generally need to provide better resources. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) is notable for the wide range of services it provides, including its Suicide Crisis Line (0800 567 567) and Mental Health Line (011 234 4837). If you need more specific help, though, we recommend one of these lines:

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