A Black Man’s Journey With Depression & How A Psychiatric Clinic Saved His Life 

by | Aug 15, 2022 | Psychology, Self-care, Treatment, Wellness | 0 comments

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Dr Bongani Mthembu,42, inspired many with a recent social media post detailing his battle with depression and being admitted to a mental health facility.

By: Thanduxolo ‘Thandz’ Buti
Main image: Darius Bashar [Unsplash]

Earlier this month, Dr Mthembu bravely posted on Twitter about voluntarily committing himself to Akeso Psychiatric Clinic, but he didn’t anticipate the tidal wave of support he would receive. The post would go on to the trend, receiving over seventeen thousand likes and over a thousand retweets.

He tells Blacklight over Zoom that he wanted to inspire black men to start prioritising their mental health. “Within the South African context, we have seen that many men are troubled,” he says.

“Not to be discriminative towards women, but black men are in serious trouble. They need some form of intervention; they need emancipation. We were taught that indoda ayikhali (a man doesn’t cry). He must man up and have balls. That societal norm has distorted our vulnerability and our coping mechanisms. The societal expectations lead us to crash and prone to mental disorders, like stress, depression and anxiety.”

Mthembu was born and raised in Orlando East, Soweto. He is now an emergency practitioner at Soyo in Angola. As a healthcare worker, which comes with its pressures, he realised that mental health issues don’t discriminate. As a medical doctor, he had to step out of his title and look at himself as a patient who needs professional help.

“Having to go through this personally made me realise the significance of it [mental illness] and how we are not doing our society any justice when it comes to medical interventions for mental health,” he explains.

“It is real. And we have to change the narrative and break the stigma – the societal expectations and pressures on black men. We need men to be more vulnerable and be able to ask for help when they need it.”

“I thought I had everything under control, but that just came and affected all areas of my life. My performance at work dropped; I neglected myself, withdrew socially, and started drinking heavily to numb the pain.”

He reveals that his depressive episode was a culmination of stressful events in his life, including the deep wound of abandonment issues and childhood trauma. 

“I was consumed by all the stressors that were surrounding my life. At some point, I gave in and just gave up. It just became a snowball of problems – a snowball effect,” he adds.

“I had quite a rough childhood. My father was absent. I didn’t quite have the life that every child desires. I have four siblings, and I am the only boy. I never got the attention. I craved it but my father always disregarded me.

“Thankfully, my mother was so resilient and powerful. She imparted all the principles, values and morals I transferred to my kids. We always think we have dealt with our childhood trauma, but eventually, it catches up with us.”

Despite his tumultuous childhood, Mthembu was always brainy, and as a result, after high school, he pursued a medical degree. He studied medicine at the Instituto Superior Ciencias Médicas de Villa Clara in Cuba. As a student, he started displaying behavioural issues. He would eventually get suspended from school for bad behaviour.

“They claimed that I had substance abuse problems and sent me to rehab. I don’t think that was the correct move because that was not the big elephant in the room. I abided and went to rehab. I was readmitted and qualified.

Mthembu was to help destigmatize mental health and inspire black men to seek professional help for depression. [Image: Supplied]

“I started working. I had all the money I needed, bought nice cars and started living recklessly. I had this huge hole within that no one or nothing could fill. You buy expensive stuff, hang around relevant people (prominent people), trying to hide behind your social life, but when you go to sleep, you still feel empty and lonely.”

In 2010, he decided to try and repair his relationship with his father in an attempt to understand some of his life choices. He passed away in 2014 while they were still working on their relationship.

“My mother also passed on later, and we had not gone into detail about my childhood issues.”

In 2019, he fell in love and got married. That feeling would be short-lived, and the union ended in divorce in 2022.

“The divorce triggered the depressive episode,” he reveals. “I thought I had everything under control, but that just came and affected all areas of my life. My performance at work dropped; I neglected myself, withdrew socially, and started drinking heavily to numb the pain.

“Everything I did would collapse, and I hated people – I wanted to be left alone. My family held an intervention for me and begged me to seek professional help. I am a father of three, two beautiful daughters and a son; that was something to live for, and it influenced my decision to seek help.

I first went to Akiso in 2018. That was the best decision I ever made. I was diagnosed with depressive disorder.”

The idea of being admitted to a psychiatric clinic is haunting because it comes with the great fear of the unknown. It does not help that psychiatric facilities are widely stigmatized, which results in many being scared to seek help.

When Mthembu was admitted to Akeso Clinic, he says he was numb and removed from himself. He had little faith in the treatment programme and was only fulfilling his obligation to his family.

“I am challenging men to be more open. I want us to have this dialogue. Taking care of our mental health and wellness should be a culture.”

“I went there with an attitude because my family had given me the ultimatum. With time, I understood their treatment plan – the therapy, group sessions etc. That is when I had a breakthrough. Then everything made sense,” he explains.

“There is a stigma attached to psychiatric care, especially when you are a doctor. But one of my personality traits is that I don’t care what people think, which has helped me achieve a lot in my life. Some people at work would make comments and jokes, but it didn’t affect me much.

“I realised that people tend to treat you differently when they learn that part of your medical history. But once they see the strength you have gained from seeking professional help, they tend to respect you more.”

This year, he booked himself in again after noticing a pattern in his behaviour. Now with a newfound self-awareness, he faced the depression head-on before it dismantled his life again.

“I decided to voluntarily admit myself because I wanted to nip it in the bud before it advanced. The recent experience taught me that I should always put myself first, emotionally. I need to protect my emotions first because no one can pour from an empty cup.”

He cites psychotherapy as one of the scariest yet most rewarding experiences. While, like many, he feared the treatment, he now describes it as a freeing experience.

“There are two reasons why people fear therapy: 1) the fear of the unknown 2) people are scared to face their demons. Truth hurts, and when you are in therapy, you must face the truth and take accountability. Most of us are scared of reliving pain, childhood trauma and other traumatic events. I find that therapy is the most relieving treatment method.”

Part of the treatment plan for clinical depression is medication (most commonly anti-depressants and mood stabilisers) with psychotherapy. The treatment plan is personalised and differs case by case. While in some cases, people can stop the medication, it’s not recommended to stop medication without consulting with your doctor. 

Mthembu says he has chosen to stop taking his treatment as he feels strong enough to cope.

Now starting a new chapter and more hopeful, he wants other black men to learn from his story. He wants them to break the stereotypes and to find strength in vulnerability.

“There is nothing shameful about being depressed, and it’s okay to seek help for some of the symptoms of clinical depression, like sexual dysfunctions (e.g. erectile dysfunction). Some men think it’s the end of the world when we experience some of these symptoms when they are treatable.

“I am challenging men to be more open. I want us to have this dialogue. Taking care of our mental health and wellness should be a culture. We need more education about mental health because there are a lot of African men who still believe that being open and vulnerable is a sign of weakness. And we can only change that through open dialogue.”

To seek professional help contact:
SADAG (The South African Depression and Anxiety Group) on 0800 567 567
24hr Emergency Helpline: 0800 12 13 14
SMS 31393 (and they will call you back)
Lifeline – National Counselling
0861 322 322 (24 hours/ 7 days a week)

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