SA must lead in mental health

2019-10-13 06:46

I have experienced the anguish of loss when, on July 28 2018, I lost my youngest son Yivani Mbali Ndizana to suicide.

He was 21.

Dubbed “a true Renaissance man”, I thought I knew him, and so did his friends, who were left suffering and perplexed.

Behind the larger than life soul of the party was a deep private struggle no one knew about or understood.

How could someone so erudite, handsome and bright – with all the qualities we admire and wish for ourselves – end his life so abruptly?

I have since learnt that it is not uncommon.

My son’s death has changed me and our family forever, not only because it subverts the order and flow of life, but because it was also a rude wake-up call.

In his letters, he said: “I have been lonely for as long as I can remember.”

He wrote that he had “forgotten himself”. He thanked everyone, said he was exhausted from trying and no longer wished to.

I soon learnt that people in families, schools and workplaces are battling mental health issues behind closed doors. It is a national crisis.

If a lack of mental health and wellbeing is unique to an individual or genetic, why is it that, at our most advanced phase in human development, there is an exponential increase in mental illnesses?

I have discovered that mental health and wellbeing is something more than we currently define, distort, dismiss or know – it is subtle and delicate.

It is in the quality of our human connections, the environment and our collective safety and trust, not just in ourselves, but in the whole human family.

It is hidden and individual, yet it is a collective affair.

In my quest to understand what Yivani conveyed, my conversations with him, and through a series of dialogues with parents and young people, I learnt that young people feel dismissed as “entitled millennials” who do not “fit in”; their creativity is rejected as “irresponsible”; and they are criticised by us for a “lack of resilience”.

Many feel choked by rigid systems, and are confused by the fractured social institutions, divided social constructs and fragmented hostile workplaces.

Historic interpersonal and intrapersonal violence is ingrained in the fabric of our society in all its structures.

Our society no longer mirrors core human values.

There is a mismatch between the image my generation projects and actual reality.They are more sensitive to truth than our generation.

We were immersed in survival mode, and learnt maladaptive tricks to outlast a hostile and inhuman past, adeptly “play the false game” and have a veneer of “external success”.

They are more real and can never duplicate our “success”, so they internalise and blame themselves for the disconnection.

Many lack access to support or are on medication but cannot afford the cost of individual therapy.

What good is it if our children must die so that we should live?

The invitation is to recover and restore the fabric of the integrity of the human system disturbed over many generations to rebuild the individual.

It is to return to the truth of the core requirements of human existence. Individualised and fragmented thinking about the symptoms instead of the root causes is futile.

We remember Yivani and all young people who died by suicide in South Africa and across the globe.

We recognise the families and friends of all those who endure the pain resulting from this loss.

Death by suicide affects all families regardless of race, social class or gender.

In this Mental Health Awareness Month, there are interventions that we as a country and society can make.

Government should urgently become a signatory to the first and second UN resolutions on mental health and human rights; sponsor and participate in the upcoming third UN resolution on mental health and human rights; investigate all policy impediments that discriminate and limit access to treatment, and enact measures to address discriminatory access to mental healthcare; and devise a means to develop collective social healing and individualised treatments to address upheavals and tensions caused by social transition, historical trauma and fractured family structures.

It is not the responsibility of government alone to respond to this crisis.

Citizens, civil society, schools, churches, workplaces and other institutions should designate zones of peace to address the structural and cultural conditions that exacerbate individual despair, and hold suffering and lack of mental wellbeing.

They should also address the social stigma, exclusion, workplace coercion and hostility, and social and interpersonal violence that entrench a lack of mental health and wellbeing. #WeAreAllAffectedToo

Siwendu is a judge and a trustee of the Yivani Mbali Foundation

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March 29 2020