Why SA Needs To Pay More Attention To The Mental Health Crisis 

by | Apr 4, 2022 | Latest, News, Psychology, Self-care, Treatment, Wellness | 0 comments

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Riky Rick’s suicide reignited a crucial conversation around mental health, especially among the black community, but can high profile suicides help send a resounding message to the government and our society about the growing mental health epidemic in South Africa?

By: Thanduxolo ‘Thandz’ Buti
Main Image: Unsplash

Mental Health is still largely misunderstood in South Africa and often overlooked until we lose another person to suicide. Despite the increasing candidness of young people and celebrities about personal mental health struggles, there has been little change in our mental health system. The majority of black youth still suffer in silence. They have little or no access to mental health resources. As a young black man living with bipolar disorder, I have come to accept that mental health treatment is expensive and inaccessible. This ultimately leads to drug addiction or suicide.

There have been many suicide deaths that have been reported over the years, but we are beginning to see a trend in celebrities taking their own lives. Miss USA Chelsi Smith, actor Patrick Shai, and rapper Riky Rick are some of the public figures whose untimely deaths highlighted the plight of poor mental health. A recent Annual Mental State of the World Report from Sapien Labs ranked mental health in South Africa as among the worst in the world. According to the report: “South Africa scored the lowest average score on the mental health wellbeing scale. The rate of distressed or struggling on the scale increased by 8%, from 28.5% in 2020 to 36%.”

The reality is that South Africans are struggling and the Covid-19 pandemic further compounded our distress. The unemployment numbers are at an all-time high, the cost of living is becoming unreasonable, corruption is crippling our country, and many still don’t have access to basic needs and resources. Life has become intolerable, especially for black youth. And without the necessary mental health resources, suicide then becomes an option for many. 

According to a recent report by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), they received over 466 400 calls on the helpline since January 2021, and one in every five calls related to suicide. “We are continuing to see an increase in the number of calls to our Helplines each and every day, with 1800 – 2200 incoming calls per day,” said Cassey Chambers, Operations Director at SADAG.

Riky Rick’s shocking death is a prime example of how we still view suicide as a society and how the lack of education around mental health still casts a shadow of silence over this disease and those that suffer from it. The conversations around the rapper’s death unveiled false ideas and prejudiced views that society holds about mental health issues. Because he was a shining beacon of what success looks like, especially to his generation, his mental health problems did not make sense to the regular person. He was a successful pop star with fame, lucrative businesses, a beautiful wife and kids. So what is it that pushed this man, who appeared to have it all, to the point of suicide? The truth is that untreated clinical depression or other mental health issues (bipolar, schizophrenia, major depression, schizoaffective disorder) can ultimately lead to death if left untreated. 

As a South African living with bipolar disorder for more than a decade, I can attest to the fact that our country still fails to fully recognise mental illness, and the increasing numbers clearly illustrate that we have a big problem on our hands. The private healthcare system still offers the best mental health treatment, however, it is very expensive and therefore only accessible to a select few. And even though the public healthcare system also offers mental health treatment, due to a lack of state investment in mental health, it is often inaccessible and ineffective. There are many complaints about the long waiting lists to access psychiatrists and psychologists in public hospitals. Due to the lack of beds, many psychiatric patients are also forced to be treated as out-patients when being an in-patient is recommended when treating severe mental health issues.

There is also the issue of lack of mental health awareness in small towns and rural areas, further fueling the misconception that mental health is an issue for the middle and upper classes. As a result, people in disadvantaged areas still cannot differentiate between normal stress and clinical depression, and fail to detect mental illnesses. Because many suffer or seek treatment in isolation, there is a lack of references of people who are living with mental illness or have won their battle against mental illness. This makes mental illness an invisible dark cloud that continues to snuff out the lives of many young people.

It is a fact that overcoming depression is a steep challenge, and when it reaches the point of constant suicidal thoughts, it becomes an emergency situation! I have observed that people fail or overlook the red flags that are displayed by someone who is suicidal. In black families, they usually skip all the steps of healing and jump into the stage of fixing the problem. For example, if someone is severely depressed due to unemployment, the family will work hard to help them secure a job, ignoring all the other symptoms that come with depression.

While getting a job may offer some kind of remedy, there are other feelings and symptoms that can continue to derail a person’s life if left untreated. One of the best tools when dealing with severe depression would be talking and listening sympathetically in order to first understand and validate the experience of the person who is suffering and seeking professional help. Talking and listening to someone who is in the throes of depression helps to remove the stigma and validates that their experience is real.

As I continue to struggle with living with mental illness, I have to continuously negotiate my pain in spaces that refuse to validate my experience. Due to a lack of resources, often I have to walk alone, to independently research alternative treatments, and sometimes I resort to isolation until the episodes have passed—which is dangerous. Isolation is the breeding ground for depression and is not a healthy way to deal with any form of mental illness. And with the shame and stigma around depression, unfortunately, many are forced into deep isolation. This is where the idea of suicide starts to form until it becomes the only option to end the suffering. 

In order for us to begin to tackle the suicide issue, we first need to learn and educate ourselves on how to deal with loved ones suffering from mental health issues. It’s time to do more than have conversations about mental health. We need to implement policies that ensure that people have access to mental healthcare and more substantial education around mental health. There needs to be more accurate education that can dispel the misconceptions around mental health so that we can end the stigma. Mental health issues can be treated and we have to get to the point where we as a society are comfortable with seeking treatment and be able to find it when we do.

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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