Removing stigma of mental illness

2019-11-26 06:00
Bantu Zotwana speaks to learners at Constantia Waldorf School on Monday 28 October as part of Mental Health Awareness Month.

Bantu Zotwana speaks to learners at Constantia Waldorf School on Monday 28 October as part of Mental Health Awareness Month.

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Bantu Zotwana is a father, an author, a motivational speaker and a qualified sound engineer. He is also a diagnosed schizophrenic.

He shared his story with learners from Constantia Waldorf School during assembly on Monday 28 October as part of Mental Health Awareness Month.

“My mission in life is to destigmatise mental illness. When people are diagnosed with a mental disorder, for example, depression or bipolar, they tend to hide it. They are scared to open up about it. But it is when you bottle it up, that’s when you give up,” says Zotwana.

Lungelwa Tyeda, a mathematics teacher at the school, invited Zotwana to come and speak to the learners.

She says she felt it was important learners heard a personal account of someone who was living it instead of just being given another lecture on mental illness.

“It is important to normalise mental illness not only to educate people or bring awareness but to help end the stereotype that you’re ‘crazy’ when diagnosed with mental illness. And to normalise it so that people are not afraid or ashamed to seek help when they need it,” Tyeda says.

Speaking to the learners, Zotwana shared his experience with mental illness, starting from before he was diagnosed as a learner. He spoke of the peer pressure he experienced and how he experimented with alcohol and smoking. He discussed his feelings at the time when he was diagnosed, the nature of his relationships and how they were affected.

Tyeda says the learners interacted well with him, asking him questions, like whether he chooses to let people know of his condition, and how he handles people treating him like a stereotype.

She says mental illness is prevalent and that she hopes Zotwana’s story will show those who have also been diagnosed with mental illness that they are not alone.

“For some, it will show somebody else is experiencing the same thing as they are. For others, I hope it will make them more empathetic,” she says.

In his self-published book Schizophrenia: There is a Way, Zotwana tells of how he was first diagnosed with the disorder when he was 17.

He says his schizophrenia was triggered by smoking dagga with his friends from the age of 14.

“Back in high school, I played sport and everything and I started experimenting, clubbing and all that. I started smoking with friends.”

He says he never thought it would lead to a mental disorder.

He recounted a particularly bad episode in matric while writing exams. He started sweating, lost his memory and started talking to himself. He eventually walked out of the exam room.

Luckily, he had a supportive family who got him the help he needed. His journey included time spent in several rehabs, Akeso, Stikland Mental Hospital and Tygerberg Mental Hospital. But Zotwana says schizophrenia can be managed with the right medication. He completed his matric at the age of 21 and later a national diploma in sound engineering.

Zotwana says he is thankful that he had the support of his family. He says when you have cancer, for example, people will look after you, help you. But if you are diagnosed with a mental illness people tend to stay away from you and start calling you names like “malletjie”.

He says the stigma surrounding his illness has stood in the way of him being offered formal employment. He currently relies on a disability grant while he continues to educate others on the misperceptions surrounding those with mental illnesses.

“We understand we all have roads to walk and that our journeys are different, but we are here to help each other. We try and address every learner holistically, bearing in mind the different stages that each human being goes through. So calling Bantu in during Mental Health Awareness Month was fruitful. His talk wasn’t sampled or scripted, he simply shared his life journey,” says Tyeda.

V To order a copy of Zotwana’s book, to invite him to speak at an event or to make a donation, call 072 814 0860,

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