The tragic story of Phineus Chauke never made it to the pages, screens, websites or airwaves of the national media.
Details of his violent death, allegedly at the hands of police officers, were found only on the pages of a small community newspaper in an equally small Limpopo town.
The silence that followed this incident was, in our society, quite normal.
After all, Chauke was a mentally ill man. And in our society, mentally ill people like him are regarded and treated as oddities of the human race, outcasts who should be seen but ignored.
Now before we cut to the heart of this matter, here’s the crux of Chauke’s story, as told by reporter Given Sebashe in the Phalaborwa-Hoedspruit Herald (August 21 2009).
Chauke (56) was mentally ill. Apparently his family and the community of Lulekani Unit-B, near the town of Tzaneen, would call the police to calm him down and take him to the hospital for treatment when he became violent as a result of his illness.
So, as usual, when the police arrived after being called during one of Chauke’s violent episodes the family sighed with relief that help was at hand.
According to an eyewitness account, nine police officers arrived on the scene and Chauke threatened to kill them with a hammer and an axe he had in his possession.
He wounded one police officer who tried to grab him. The officers allegedly responded by opening fire on Chauke. Three bullets hit him, one in the head, another in the stomach and the other in his hand.
The poor man died on the spot before the eyes of his shocked family.
I was reminded of this case during a session in Joburg this week on the Mental Health Care Act, at a seminar on responsible mental health reporting organised by the SA Depression and Anxiety Group and The Carter Center.
Among other things, the act protects the rights of the mentally ill and seeks to uphold their dignity and promote their access to healthcare like all other citizens.
It also states that citizens have a right to seek police intervention in cases where mentally ill people are perceived to be a danger to themselves or others.
In Chauke’s case, the police were therefore acting within the ambit of the law by intervening when called upon by the helpless family.
Of course, the end was tragic, which then raises the question as to whether police officers are adequately trained to deal with such cases.
It also raises questions about society’s general attitudes towards the treatment of mentally ill people and awareness around issues of mental health.
While the Mental Health Care Act does look good on paper, the reality on the ground is that mentally ill people, particularly in rural areas, still face daunting challenges which are exacerbated by a lack of resources and skills at public-health institutions.
It is also undeniable that the public-health system has a dire shortage of specialised skills, which includes a lack of psychiatrists and psychologists.
Added to this is the public’s lack of knowledge on issues of mental health, how to care for mentally ill people and the stigma surrounding the matter.
A classic but sad example is the issue raised by field workers based in far-flung rural areas on the issue of mentally ill patients who are abandoned by their families.
The mentally ill are often either dumped in hospitals – never to be visited again – or left to roam the streets, living out their lives as nameless men and women without a home or dignity, when in fact they could be institutionalised or put on medication and cared for by family.
In Chauke’s case, at least he had the care and love of family. But there are many others out there who, because they were failed by society and perhaps the system, are forced to haunt the streets and bushes of our land with no one to help or care for them.
It is high time we begin vigorous campaigns like the one that pushed back the frontiers against HIV and Aids to break the silence on mental illness.