The way we view mentally ill people is sick

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The way we view mentally ill people is sick

We have all got to do better at understanding how to treat mentally unwell people

Andile Ndlovu

At the height of my late mother’s severe depression, she slept a lot. She took her medication, but we knew she wasn’t feeling well because for someone who loved to cook (and was proud of her prowess in front of the stove), she hardly ate.
Sometimes we allowed her space. Sometimes she welcomed company. But she never, ever lashed out at us irrationally. Mostly, she exhibited a smile that could brighten Durban in its entirety. Her laugh was frequent, and made you want to laugh along – even when you were the butt of her joke(s). 
In hindsight, she tried her darned best not to let her mental health permeate all spheres of her life and the rest of the household. But a part of me has always wondered whether this was also because she was struggling to come to grips with what and how she was feeling – to define and share all your deepest fears and anxieties with others requires that you understand what’s going on. So that there are no misunderstandings. Perhaps she was ashamed. 
I thought of this after rapper Riky Rick’s announcement this week that he was taking an extended break from public performances and appearances, because he needed to fully assimilate what he was going through.
He explained that he wanted to be with his family. He wasn’t in the right frame of mind to be fully available to the public, as I’m sure is his everyday circumstance – he is recognisable, popular and adored.This may explain why he had to come out with that explanation. He didn’t owe us such a personal account,  especially as it appears he is still trying to deal with whatever it is that he is suffering from. It could be fatigue. Or depression. Or schizophrenia. He could be in financial distress. 
In a week when Democrat-bashing, Donald Trump-loving and former favourite Kanye West’s incongruent and incendiary tweets have seen them linked to his mental illness (he reportedly suffered from temporary psychosis before cancelling his last tour and heading into rehab), it is worrying that we see mental illness as a stunt. People are expected to perform and act wildly out of character before it is believable. Admittedly, in the case of Kanye, there is plenty of ammunition employable against him – some of it was purely for publicity. 
It means that when people like Riky Rick come out to reveal that he needs an indefinite break from music, people demand to see proof. I’ve already seen accusations on social media suggesting he was “trying to be SA’s Kanye”.
Back home, in KZN, “uhlanya” is “a crazy person” and “iphara” is a sort of a leper. Most times, they’re expected to be incoherent vagabonds, harassing people for R2 coins so they could afford nyaope. Until a person exhibits such a behaviour, they’re healthy enough to partake in the usual everyday social activities.
It’s uninformed and reckless, and we have all got to do better to understand how to treat mentally unwell people, because often they are as overwrought as we are bemused.
I’m reminded of Kid Cudi’s affecting Facebook post from a couple of years ago, in which he wrote: “It’s been difficult for me to find the words to what I’m about to share with you because I feel ashamed ... Yesterday I checked myself into rehab for depression and suicidal urges. 
“I am not at peace. I haven’t been since you’ve known me ... There’s a raging violent storm inside of my heart at all times. I don’t know what peace feels like. I don’t know how to relax. My anxiety and depression have ruled my life for as long as I can remember and I never leave the house because of it. I can’t make new friends because of it.  I don’t trust anyone because of it and I’m tired of being held back in my life. I deserve to have peace. I deserve to be happy and smiling. Why not me?”
All of this is particularly relevant in a country like ours that is said to have a quarter of its workforce struggling with depression and related illnesses. We must all do better for our own mental state and those of others.

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