Dr. Nokukhanya Khanyile has made it her mission to bring the uncomfortable mental health conversation into the spotlight, in an effort to equip people with the necessary tools to find healing and support.
By: Thanduxolo “Thandz” Buti
Images courtesy of Dr Khanyile
Dr Khanyile is one of the few doctors who have made it their mission to be the voice that helps educate and empower people through medicine. The full-time medical officer uses the online space to spark conversations around family-centred health care, with a focus on mental health. She is the vice-president of Mental Matters, a mental healthcare platform that sheds more light on the misunderstood and stigmatised epidemic that is silently ravaging our society.
“Mental Matters was founded by Gugu Masondo who lives with mental illness,” she tells Blacklight. “After being admitted to a mental health institution, she continuously received questions from family and friends about her condition. She then decided to create a safe space where mental health issues can be discussed openly.
“This platform brings together mental healthcare practitioners, people living with mental illness, and people who overcame psychological/psychiatric problems to work together and understand each other better.
“I was invited to speak as a healthcare professional, after the talk people wanted to learn more and get involved, so we started doing seminars and videos to equip people with more information. I am part of this because, for me, it’s all about holistic wellness, not just mental health.”
Digital Health and Wellness
With the radical change that the digital space has brought into our lives, it has now become the hub for information. It has also made it easier for a lot of practitioners, like medical doctors, to have direct access to patients and people seeking medical information and advice. Dr Khanyile is one of the most influential medical officers in the space and uses the platform to spark dialogues around healthcare.
“I make use of social media because it’s so accessible, especially when one wishes to engage the youth,” she shares. “I also go where I am invited to speak, to engage directly with people. However, I am wary of covering many things within the healthcare space because I don’t want to spread myself too thin and confuse myself; hence I have made mental health my niche. This path is easy for me because I am someone who lives what they preach. My goal is to be able to give people practical examples of what good mental health looks like.”
With her extensive work in the mental health arena, the doctor has uncovered that many people who are suffering in silence from mental illness only wish to be seen and heard. “It’s tough because even though we may have people around us who are there to listen, most times they don’t understand your plight. I appreciate platforms that allow people to share their mental health stories because then people battling mental illness can begin to feel seen and heard. We are resilient people, but we are also vulnerable.
“I make sure that I curate my life in such a way that I keep only people who are supportive and always there to listen when I need support. I have also found that crying is sometimes the best medicine. At times we just need to offload our emotions. It’s a lot of energy that one needs to let out, and if you can find healthy outlets to help you purge yourself of the emotions, you will find that you feel less overwhelmed.”
Reaching Out For Support – Family & Friends
According to Dr Khanyile, most people struggle to be transparent about their feelings, especially about psychological matters. They often find comfort in opening up to healthcare workers than to loved ones, due to the stigma and the lack of language to describe their psychological problems.
“Most feel misunderstood in their homes, and they believe that doctors are more likely to have the answers to what they are experiencing. However, it’s not so simple to get a diagnosis; it can take a while. Other times it’s just stress and one just needs someone to offload to, who can help give them direction, like a psychologist,” explains Dr Khanyile.
“I find that with family and friends, they just want you to be okay. Hence when you are not okay their usual response is: “stay strong, keep pushing, and you will be okay.” They say all this because at times dealing with someone with mental illness can be overwhelming. That is why people tend to find a sense of belonging anywhere they can find it, and that’s why they also turn to drugs and alcohol and other risky behaviours. Those risky behaviours usually include a group of people who are also looking for some sort of high. So the difficulty for doctors is finding the right support for their patient.”
Seeking Professional Help
The difficulty in treating mental illnesses is that part of the treatment requires medication. Convincing patients to take and stay on medication is usually a challenge. According to the doctor, depending on the severity of the condition, they aim to stabilise patients so that they can better cope; that way they can be able to tackle their issues. Sometimes the treatment can be temporary, and other times, for more severe conditions, like schizophrenia and bipolar, it can be a lifetime. The treatment can also include working with occupational therapists, psychologists, and social workers, so the doctors can better understand the patient and help them to cope with every aspect of their lives. However, she stresses that it’s important for one to have a solid support structure to help them get back to normality.
“If you are suffering from some form of mental illness, it is important to have family meetings with the people you stay with, to break down what is happening and what is needed to help support so that the real healing can take place. Everyone needs to take accountability for their actions that may have contributed to the breakdown, yourself included. Moving forward, we also need a change of behaviours to maintain a healthier environment at our homes.”
Mental Health in the Black Community
While there is the narrative that many who suffer from mental illnesses in the black community struggle to find support, Dr Khanyile does not share the same sentiments. She believes that there is support, but it does not come the way many expect it.
“For example, there are churches and other cultural groups where everybody knows one another and people are willing to chip in when there is a need for support – whether it’s by visiting, cooking or financially. However, when we mention mental illness, it becomes a different conversation. You will find that people in these groups use similar mental care approaches, like cognitive behavioural therapy, where one is taught how to think about problems differently. However, we may not understand this approach when coming from pastors or family members because it’s just one aspect of support; one needs to look at all the layers to heal.
She adds: “Some people with severe mental illness have also been problematic in their communities. They may have gotten into a lot of fights or disagreements due to mood swings or manic episodes, which may have led to a breakdown in most of their relationships. This causes them to feel isolated. However, many don’t understand that the cause may have been a mental illness, and this person may not necessarily be a bad person.”
Shifting the Mental Health Narrative
Dr Khanyile believes it’s imperative for people suffering from mental illnesses to start uncomfortable conversations in their families so that they can help shift the narrative about mental health in black families. She also adds that family members and loved ones must also be able to meet them halfway. “Having the conversation and shifting the narrative in our families and inner circles is hard because we [society] are quite resistant about sharing our deep feelings – sharing how we feel instead of how we are doing. It’s easy to have a seminar and post on social media, but having real conversations with our loved ones is the biggest challenge,” she explains.
“Sometimes we are asked to open up when we are not ready to open up. If you want someone to open up, you have to listen intently and take them seriously. If someone tells you about having suicidal thoughts, you have to be able to help or offer support, and that requires education.”
With the festive season being infamous for triggering anxiety and depression, with the coronavirus, this may be one of the toughest holiday seasons. The pandemic has already rendered many into a state of uncertainty – with many dealing with retrenchments, rapidly increasing unemployment rate, pay cuts, and business shutdowns.
“Materialism is a real thing,” says Dr Khanyile. “Most people are depressed because they lost their possessions. Some people also lost loved ones and may still be grieving during the festive season. We must allow people to grieve and to feel whatever they are feeling. I believe that it’s unfair for us to expect people to be okay, especially during this time.
“If you are lucky enough to be alive and healthy, you have an opportunity to take your mental health by the horns and take control of it. We are so used to this narrative that people should be strong and patient, but not everybody can do that, and we should not have to do that. We need to know that there is power in vulnerability because then you realise where you are weak and seek help.
For more on Mental Matters, go to @mentalmatters_
Follow Dr Khanyile: @dr_khanyile
To seek professional help:
SADAG (South African Depression and Anxiety Group) Emergency Line:
For a suicidal Emergency contact: 0800 567 567
24hr Helpline 0800 456 789
National counselling line: 0861-322-322.
Covid-19 Public Hotline
O800 123 456
Whatsapp: 0600 123 456