OPINION: Mayosi's death must pave the way for collective healing

As with many of us, the terrible news of the death of Dr Bongani Mayosi on July 27 caught me off guard. I was in shock and felt traumatised.

I had known Bongani from way back – when we were students.

His death signals the importance of emphasising that clinical depression is not a personal weakness – it is a common, yet serious, medical condition. It is a “whole body” illness that affects mood, thoughts, body and behaviour.

Anyone can experience clinical depression, regardless of race, gender, age, creed or income. Depression robs people of the enjoyment of life.

The myths and stigma that surround depression create needless pain and confusion and can keep people from getting proper treatment.

Some of the myths about depression include, but are not limited to:

. “Why are you depressed? If our people could make it through apartheid, we can make it through anything”;

. “When black men suffer from mental health disorder, the opinion is that he is weak”;

. “A weak black man is intolerable”; and

. “You should take your troubles to Jesus, not some stranger/psychologist.”

The truth of the matter is that getting help for a mental health condition is a sign of strength. People with clinical depression cannot just “snap out of it”. Without doubt, family and spiritual support are an important part of the healing process but they cannot replace the role and care of a qualified mental health practitioner.

Numerous factors are associated with the onset of clinical depression, including, but not limited to, cognitive issues (such as negative-thinking patterns); biological and genetic factors; gender (it affects more women than men); and situational factors. For some, many factors are present; for others a single factor can cause the illness. As with other illnesses, clinical depression is treatable with the help of a healthcare practitioner.

Mayosi’s depression epitomises that of ordinary people: the professionals and laypeople who deal with sadness, suffering constantly, might not have the ability to describe how they are feeling or the courage to talk about it to others.

It is difficult to talk to others about emotional pain; so many people hold on to it and hide it. Too often we work overtime, hiding behind a mask that makes us appear powerful, in control and confident. The reality is that, privately, in the silence of our souls, we are dying because we simply don’t know how to reach out for help. We barely exist, limping through each day under the weight of depression and anxiety, burying it deep within ourselves but suffering acutely and quietly.

This suffering can make us lethargic, unable to cope with our angst. We hide our depression and anxiety – even from family and friends – because we fear being judged as weak and ineffective.

It’s almost as if we are allowing and nurturing a state of emergency in the family and community; a state that influences the lives of those who need us the most – our children, spouses, mothers, fathers.

This is not who we are as a people. Since the beginning of time and throughout our history, we have come through fire and brought with us a powerful testimony of strength, creativity, resilience and miracles that we seem to have reached up and pulled from heaven. Yet, at times when we should be soaring, we are floundering.

Our people will remain shackled to the bondage of misery, pain and suffering, unable to move forward until they are free and healthy. This is possible only if we come out of hiding, if we are brave enough to accept we have a problem and that seeking healthcare doesn’t make us weak. Facing the truth of depression, anxiety and other mental health conditions might be the hardest thing to do, because it means reaching out and asking for help. It means having the courage to tell the truth so that we will get support. It might also encourage others to seek help.

Our coming into light needn’t be a public declaration. It just needs to happen in our psyches and our souls. And we must commit to receiving the gift of therapy, which will help heal us. Mayosi’s legacy has opened the way – we just have to walk it. We have to admit that we bear the generational wounds and scars caused by more than three centuries of colonialism, apartheid and on-going abuse in our families and communities.

The current heinous acts of violence against women and children are not forgotten. We ought to remember that our humanity and beauty have been degraded, defiled and devalued. The wonder is that there are not more deaths. The wonder is that we have survived. We are the offspring of people who refused to die. Rest in Peace, Dr Bongani Mayosi.

- Notshulwana-Mqota is a clinical psychologist and CEO of Phuhlisa Psychological Group

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