/ 31 July 2021

Intergenerational mental trauma and violence: a two-way street

Graphic Mental2 Twitter
(John McCann/M&G)

The other day, a friend told me there is no such thing as a healthy body without a healthy mind. He couldn’t be more right. “And without adequate levels of societal mental health, we can’t have a healthy society either,” he added. Again, he was spot on.

Unfortunately, mental health still remains the underdog in discussions around people’s wellbeing, despite recent studies showing that 24% of South African children in Grade 8-11 experience feelings of depression, hopelessness and sadness as well as post-traumatic stress syndrome. A further 21% of this group has attempted suicide at least once. That means that almost half of 13- to 17-year-olds in this country struggle with their mental health. The fact that the bulk of them do not have access to care and suffer in silence, affecting them throughout adulthood, is the reason we still need national and international mental health days, weeks, and months.

It is time we got our act together. Mental trauma, if not taken as seriously as, say, Covid-19, cancer, or HIV, does not just have far-reaching implications for the people struggling with these issues. They harm entire societies, including our own. The fact is our beloved country is wrapped in visible and invisible layers of – very often intergenerational – trauma caused by violence, crime, chronic hunger, deprivations of all sorts, broken families, exploitation, lack of opportunities, inequality and the omnipresence of death.

It is not an exaggeration when I say that people in South Africa, especially the most vulnerable, are presented in their lifetime with more trauma than more than most of us can ever comprehend. My friend’s housekeeper alone has lost four family members due to crime, traffic accidents, and depression this year and has been to over a dozen more funerals of friends and neighbours. On top of that, she used to live in a shack that flooded every winter before she finally moved to an RDP house, lost her firstborn due to gang violence, and was in a coma for over a month after a traffic accident.

She is not alone. Ask any person living in townships such as Alexandra, Khayelitsha, Diepsloot and Mfuleni about how trauma and loss have manifested throughout their lives, and you will hear similar stories.

It is not a surprise that we also have one of the most violent societies in the world. To me that shows that intergenerational mental trauma and violence feed one another like a two-way street. Take the destruction of homes, businesses, livelihoods, and human life we saw in Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal last week.

No, I am not defending or justifying what has transpired. It doesn’t warrant a defence or justification. I have worked in Diepsloot, and what I have seen while helping our young people protect their lives, businesses, and livelihoods can’t be described in a few sentences. It was haunting and soul-smashing, and perpetrators need to be held accountable; no exceptions made.

However, if we want to move beyond the horrors of the unrest, we need to solve the volatility of our nation and prevent it from exploding again. In the film Damage with Juliet Binoche and Jeremy Irons, the line is spoken: “Damaged people are dangerous. They know they can survive.” 

It couldn’t be closer to the truth.

This requires us to look at the whys – all of them, even the uncomfortable ones no one speaks of or the ones we regard as trivial. Mental health and the burden of collective mental trauma are two of those. A mentally healthy society tends to be happy and far less volatile and explosive – there are no two ways around it. Sweden, for instance, has the highest levels of satisfactory mental and societal health.That is why we at Afrika Tikkun have put mental health and wellbeing at the foundation of our work with young people and their families, for instance, through psychosocial counselling. If we don’t help children and young people access the tools they need, not just to excel in school and in the workspace, but also to safeguard their mental health, what will the future hold for them? What will become of our country’s future?