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Mental health struggles are not about weakness – but wilfully ignoring somebody’s pain is


Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist and columnist at Daily Maverick and is part of the founding team of Maverick Citizen. Prior to Daily Maverick she worked as a communications and advocacy officer at Public Interest Law Centre SECTION27.

It is critical that we ask ourselves why we find it so easy to highlight others’ mental health conditions yet struggle to face our own, again for fear of being found to be weak for not being able to handle our lives.

Riky Rick, a popular South African rap artist, took his own life on Wednesday, 23 February. He was 34. All through the day after the news broke of the tragedy our timelines were flooded with messages about the importance of mental health and checking in on one another.

Yet, instead of engaging with all the words of comfort, all I could do was wrestle with how accessible and easy it is to take one’s own life.  

Mental health in South Africa is not something that society and, more to the point, the Department of Health, itself prioritises. People often dismiss it as “attention seeking” and being “weak”, whatever that even means.

During Mental Health Awareness Month in 2021, I attended the launch of a report by the Department of Health titled “Mental health system costs, resources and constraints in South Africa: A national survey”. The report revealed the staggeringly meagre financial resources dedicated to mental health by the department. This ranged from the lowest budget allocation of 2.1% in Mpumalanga to the highest of 7.7% in the Western Cape, yet the World Health Organization’s recommendation is that it should be 5% to 10% of a country’s health budget. The report also revealed that only one in 10 uninsured South Africans has access to the mental healthcare services they need. Now, taking into consideration that only 16.4% of the population have medical aid, the picture starts to look decidedly grim.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) has been warning of growing mental health concerns in South Africa. It raised this particular alarm amid the unbelievable difficulty and turmoil that Covid-19 has wrought on people the world over.

However, what health professionals also warned of was the specific impact it would have on people within our society who are already vulnerable and whose mental health is already compromised.

According to a Sadag report released in 2021, “there are 23 known cases of suicide in South Africa every day, and for every person that commits suicide, 10 have attempted it. Before Covid-19, the organisation fielded 600 calls a day. As of September 2021, that number had risen to 2,200 calls a day.”

It would probably surprise most people how common mental health issues and suicidal thoughts are among people, because depression and anxiety not only manifest differently in people but people also handle it differently. Many people may be aware of this disease but will not know how to handle it or even have the wherewithal to alert anyone that they need help. Sometimes even those who know and seek the help may not be reaching out to the right people who are equipped with the tools they need to give them the necessary help/assistance.

Friends and family, on hearing that a loved one has taken their life, often respond with “we could have done more” and are racked with guilt, when the truth is that, whether or not they saw it coming, there is probably nothing they could have done to prevent it.

While doing research for this article I came across this rather poignant quote by university professor and writer David Foster Wallace describing suicide years before his death by suicide.

“The so-called ‘depressed’ person who tries to kill herself doesn’t do so out of ‘hopelessness’ or any abstract conviction that life’s assets and debits do not square. And surely not because death seems suddenly appealing. The person in whom its invisible agony reaches a certain unendurable level will kill herself the same way a trapped person will eventually jump from the window of a burning high rise. Make no mistake about people who leap from burning windows. Their terror of falling from a great height is still just as great as it would be for you or me standing speculatively at the same window checking out the view; i.e. the fear of falling remains a constant. The variable here is the other terror, the fire’s flames: when the flames get close enough, falling to death becomes the slightly less terrible of two terrors. It’s not desiring the fall, it’s terror of the flames.”

For me this quote sketches a very vivid picture of what a person possibly experiences during suicidal thoughts in a way that draws one in to look and seek to understand without judgement or superficial understanding.

It is critical that we ask ourselves why we find it so easy to highlight others’ mental health conditions yet struggle to face our own, again for fear of being found to be weak for not being able to handle our lives.

To my mind weakness cannot be defined as a person who, after having had their time in the ring of life and having given their all, despite the brutalising pain they have been dealt, comes back and asks for assistance.

Weakness for me is a society that wilfully ignores and minimises an issue that threatens our very survival. Without our mental health we essentially have nothing and it is vital that as a people we understand that. DM168

Zukiswa Pikoli is a journalist at Maverick Citizen.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper which is available for R25 at Pick n Pay, Exclusive Books and airport bookstores. For your nearest stockist, please click here.


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