A UCT lecturer blames depression for disturbing rant about rape and murder – can mental health issues ever excuse violence?

Mental health issues should be addressed by professionals.
Mental health issues should be addressed by professionals.

A lecturer at the University of Cape Town is on a compulsory leave of absence on 'medical grounds' after allegedly posting on Facebook that during his battle with depression, he would have thoughts of violating his daughter. This is after sharing a post stating that women should 'close their legs and open their ears' in response to the #MenAreTrash narrative.

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His arguments ranged from misogynistic to implying that some the acts of violence men commit can be a result of mental health issues; claiming that "some of those men are suffering from depression some of those men are deeply scared to the extent that they do these acts (sic)".

We contacted the University of Cape Town, and vice-chancellor Professor Mamokgethi Phakeng who has issued a statement to students and employees of the university confirming that [the lecturer] is receiving medical care.

"I am writing to inform you that we are still monitoring the situation very closely and will continue to deal with the entire issue with collective wisdom, compassion and by ensuring due process is followed," Professor Mamokgethi writes. "I can now report that the lecturer is receiving the necessary professional medical attention. As a university community we are seeking not just to uphold the letter of the law and UCT’s code of conduct, but also to respond to a humanity we all share. We are keeping in contact with the staff member and his family."  

Many responses express they read his posts as a cry for help. 

But does mental health really have anything to do with violent acts against women or children? 

Researcher, Lisa Vetten, who has compiled numerous studies on gender-based violence, says "in the experience I’ve had in working with violent men, many of them do experience themselves as victimised. It sounds paradoxical, especially in domestic violence."

As a call for help, admitting to depression is a step forward towards healing, but it's 100 steps back if depression is positioned as the fundamental reason for violence because it makes the perpetrator look like the victim. 

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Clinical psychologist, Jaco van Zyl, explains that although violent acts can be traced back to a mental health illness, they cannot be justified by it. "We must be careful that should there be mental health issues in certain perpetrators, we cannot generalise and say it is always present because it is certainly not the case," he says. "We cannot blame mental illness alone because there are so many other factors that play a role in getting someone to act out their violence upon someone else."

"In the experience I’ve had in working with violent men, many of them do experience themselves as victimised. It sounds paradoxical, especially in domestic violence."

Whether a person is suffering from mental illness or not, there are still sets of belief systems and principles that govern a person's judgement of right and wrong. According to Jaco, we all have an inert ability to avoid hurting another person - the ability to reason and to resist particular urges. 

"Mental illness in certain instances could weaken the resistance. Alcohol abuse in certain instances would weaken the resistance. But you would have to have this other frame, this other mental framework that you’ve bought into - attitudes and values which you’ve bought into that are already there that almost permit you to act out a certain way and then commit violence upon someone else," explains Jaco.

The factors that could lead to a person eventually violating another person, Jaco explains, are things like attitudes towards women, attitudes about sex, gender roles, and so on. "Maybe a person has been socialised a certain way through role models, through peer groups, in which they are being taught that it is okay under certain circumstances to violate a woman or a minor. These are the kinds of factors we look out for to see why people eventually go over into action by violating or molesting," he says. 

"We cannot surrender our responsibility, even if we’re suffering from mental health issues."

More than anything, mental health issues should help with figuring out what the problem is. Lisa adds that mental health issues can precipitate violence, but they don’t necessarily excuse the violence. As far as mental health issues lead to violent acts, people dealing with these should seek help and not surrender to harming those around them.

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"You still have a value system, you still have judgment, you still have a pre-existing attitude that could provide adequate resistance," says Jaco, "and if you do not have that adequate resistance, you need to seek help to act responsibly so as to prevent you from acting out these suppressed thoughts. We cannot surrender our responsibility, even if we’re suffering from mental health issues." 

Jaco advises that anyone battling through a mental health issue should seek the help of a counsellor, a psychologist, or a social worker, so that the necessary exploration of these thoughts can be made in a safe environment and so that the person may get mastery over the thoughts and the impulses and not act upon them. 

If you are battling with mental illness and need help, contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group on 0800 12 13 14

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