A recent article published in Destiny Man titled, ‘Why Black People Don’t Take Depression Seriously,’ addressed the criticism which South African rapper HHP received when he opened up about his battle with depression and several failed attempts at committing suicide.
Some members of the public referred to the rapper as weak and mocked him extensively. Unfortunately, this is a common response to mental health issues in the black community. Depression has for a long time been referred to as a ‘white disease,’ despite the fact that close to one in six South Africans suffer from depression or anxiety.
As a result, mental health issues amongst black South Africans often go untreated, especially since individuals who admit to their problems are viewed as incapable. Often times, sufferers also cannot afford professional mental healthcare and more importantly healthcare is largely unavailable in smaller urban areas and rural communities. Added to this; there is widespread misinformation about mental illnesses.
Depression is sometimes seen as irresponsibility or rudeness and sufferers are often chastised for their symptoms instead of being shown care or compassion. Common symptoms such as the sufferers needing to isolate themselves, anger and irritability as well as hypersomnia (sleeping too much) are seen as acts of defiance, especially amongst younger sufferers who struggle to fulfil social expectations such as waking up to complete household chores and who display ‘moody’ behaviours towards elders.
The result of these attitudes towards mental health is particularly evident at UCT. A considerable number of black students at the university come from lower income communities and are either the first in their families to come to university or the first to potentially graduate.
These students are under immense pressure. They are expected to succeed academically and are labelled as the future breadwinners of their families. Students often choose to put on a brave face when dealing with stress and depression as they cannot disappoint those who are dependent on them. Some students will choose to soldier through to graduation without seeking assistance or opting to extend their degree because the financial and status-driven gains of acquiring a degree, outweigh the psychological costs of stress and overexertion.
Depression can adversely affect academic progress as sufferers often battle with concentration issues as well as persistent physical aches and pains. Students then hand in assignments late or are unable to study for tests, despite their best efforts. Due to the unfavourable attitudes towards mental illness, they may find it difficult to approach their lecturers and admit that they are struggling.
Although facilities such as Student Wellness are available, many students wait until the issue has reached a peak before they seek help. Tragically, if depression is left untreated it can compound and the sufferer may choose to commit suicide as they perceive no other option available.
The attitudes towards mental health need to change. In many black communities, mental illness is blamed on witchcraft or demonic possession instead of being seen as a normal response to an abnormal amount of emotional trauma or pressure. Mental illness is not a racially selective phenomenon and it’s dangerous to dismiss an individual’s pain because their ‘race’ discredits their struggles.
If you’re struggling with a mental illness or suspect that you may have one, please seek help. It does not make you weak, it makes you a fighter.