/ 14 November 2020

Convoluted minds must also be heard

A Man Called As " Sze Shing " Who Has Bipolar Disorder, Poses For Photography At A Clinic In Central. 04sep11
Mental illness carries a stigma, but with the publication of her book, Dr Ngcobo sheds light on living with bipolar disorder in an attempt to end judgment and educate people. (Photo by May Tse/South China Morning Post via Getty Images)

I have lived with bipolar disorder since it was diagnosed at the age of fourteen. My mental illness has often threatened to define me, but I have fought back to secure a life that is fulfilling and whole, despite its presence. 

Vulnerability is an uncomfortable state to be in and being unable to control one’s behaviour in the presence of people is even worse. When mentally unwell, having control of oneself and surroundings is impossible. One then lies bare under the scrutiny of public opinion and judgment. 

My illness has been my life’s greatest teacher. It has forced me to contend with my spirituality, culture and people. I have often found myself at loggerheads with these three entities. What all three have in common is the pungent stench of stigma, which is largely fuelled by fear and misunderstanding.

Being an individual who has a strong spiritual foundation, it was initially difficult for me to equate my illness with my Christian beliefs. I felt rejected by the label of being demon-possessed and deemed to be a conduit of evil because of my mental state. 

Culturally, I was believed to be bewitched and was therefore feared. How I looked and behaved when ill was feared to be contagious, hence I was avoided. 

All these experiences led to self-blame and shame. I felt apologetic for something that I did not cause, create nor understand. The pain that arises from my mental episodes is that my spoken words are taken as my truth, my beliefs. Being ridiculed, mocked, and gossiped about for my mental vulnerability and behaviour is a pain that has been difficult to process and overcome.

The world we live in is in turmoil and is suffering from a mental health crisis, which has spiked significantly since the Covid-19 pandemic.

My motivation in my mental health advocacy and activism journey is to confront stigma and to encourage those who struggle with their mental health to speak about it unashamedly and unapologetically. For far too long, mental illness has laid in the shadows, undermined by other physical illnesses that are deemed to be more serious and real. As a result, mental illnesses are often still not deemed to be legitimate. 

After my most recent relapse and subsequent negative experiences that arose from it, I found it timeous to write about my experiences and views related to my mental illness and my life as a doctor who is living with a mental illness. 

This interplay of roles has been highly educational and advantageous. My book, Reflections of a Convoluted Mind, seeks to inspire, give hope and to enlighten the reader. It is a book I wish I could have read when I was deep in my hopeless and lonely chasm of depression. 

It is my firm belief that speaking openly about my experiences with my mental health struggles will help change the narrative related to the plague of stigma, judgment, and stereotypes. 

I own my struggle, messy and chaotic as it is when it arrives. 

Suicide rates worldwide are alarming to say the least. Social media deceives people into believing that struggle is an abstract concept, whereas it is a reality of the human experience. Coping skills are impaired and this further compromises those who are vulnerable to developing mental illnesses and those who already struggle with them.

Educating ourselves, our loved ones and community at large is what will steer society on the right course and propel us in our quest to embrace mental illnesses and take mental health seriously.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Mail & Guardian.