Jesus helps, but we must dispel the stigma of mental health

“White people have therapists; black people have Jesus.”

This statement sums up a general view held by many black people on the issue of mental health. Broach the subject of suffering from depression and you are told to start smiling – “or we will get the pastor to come and pray for you. We are not Europeans here.”

I used to believe this. My experiences in high school convinced me that mental health was an issue for those with privilege and wealth. It was aligned to certain global regions, certain ways of life and, to some extent, certain racial groups. To me, doctors were for “real” illnesses – proper things such as cancer or chronic kidney failure. Mental health was really just about getting it together and getting happy. Black people sucked it up and kept it moving.

Yet, with time and experience, I learned that this was not right. Years after high school, I find myself sitting and waiting for a friend at a government hospital’s psychiatric unit, during visiting hours. I see family members waiting for their mother, a woman crying as her daughter holds her, and a man trying to engage with his son. Like me, all of them are shades of brown. None of them are here because they want to be here but because they need to be – just like the people in the maternity trauma unit down the hall.

Because of the stigma attached to mental health issues, those who experience depression, say, tend not to seek help, fearing they will be met with disbelief, exasperation or general misunderstanding.

By shaming people who speak out on mental issues, we do the equivalent of shaming someone with a chronic disease. Telling people that they must put on a smile and keep going is as helpful as “put some Dettol and cotton wool on that gunshot wound – it will heal right up”.

Studies show that in South Africa one in three people suffer from some form of mental illness, with more than 17-million people dealing with conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder, anxiety and schizophrenia. Many will not disclose the fact that they suffer in this way and will not seek help – about 75% do not. That is 12.75-million people in South Africa alone.

Understandably, not everyone can be a therapist, just as not everyone can be a cardiovascular surgeon. We cannot all be expected to help, but this does not preclude us from providing support. Rather than being dismissive, we can encourage people to speak out and seek help.

Institutions such as Tara Hospital in Johannesburg provide in-patient care and allow for people to engage with activities such as group work within a controlled environment. Yet private institutions can cost up to R2 700 a night. There are also such facilities in government hospitals, but not nearly enough. The department of health spends about 4% of its budget on mental health. It is simply not seen as a priority.

There is an extreme shortage of psychiatric nurses, psychiatrists and psychologists, as well as facilities. According to one study, there are 7 000 to 7 500 psychologists in a population of more than 52-million.

No year can go by without one hearing of a suicide on a university campus or a policeman shooting himself and his partner. According to the World Health Organisation, 23 suicides are recorded a day in South Africa.

This goes a lot further than saying: “People are sad.” Depression will soon be the leading global cause of disability, with about 350-million people having some form of depression, according to recent data. We can no longer just say “Africans have Jesus”. Prayer can be a good thing, but pragmatism goes a long way.

Kagure Mugo is the cofounder and full-time curator of HOLAAfrica! She is a part-time pseudo-academic and part-time wine-bar philosopher

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Kagure Mugo
Kagure Mugo

Kagure Mugo is the intoxicatingly scary gatekeeper of HOLAAfrica, an online pan-African queer womanist community dealing with sexuality and all things woman. She is also a writer and freelance journalist who tackles sex, politics and other less interesting topics. During weekends she is a wine bar philosopher and polymath for no pay.

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