Depression is a luxury few people of colour can afford

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I was born in Mitchell’s Plain, an area known for its problems with gangsterism, drugs and poverty.

This community is rife with mothers who’ve lost children to crime, children whose parents have abused and abandoned them, and people who are still financially, psychologically and emotionally struggling as they are still affected by the aftermath of an Apartheid regime that didn’t seek to educate them or care for their futures.

As recently pointed out by a blogger who calls herself Naked Flower in a post called Depression Is A Luxury: “by virtue of being born of colour, I inherited socio-economic issues at birth. From an early age, I became accustomed to abuse, suffering and torment.”
 
A lot of people of colour have been struggling with fulfilling basic needs every day; like making sure their kids have food every night and basic education for themselves and their families for decades. It’s a cycle that somehow lulls us into thinking and believing the illusion that things have changed, but one that sees many people stuck in the same cycle, not necessarily through any fault of their own.

My own mother has told me to “pull myself straight” with regards to my anxiety disorder.

So it makes sense that, along with all these issues like poverty and abuse, there’s a history of mental illness.

However, things like depression and anxiety are often put on the back burner when you’re on your last R20 and you need to choose between electricity or a loaf of bread. So mental illness, as Naked Flower points out, becomes a luxury that few can afford.

A few of my family members have been diagnosed with mental illnesses, myself included, but because there is such a lack of understanding when it comes to things like anxiety and depression, many of my other family members treat our diagnoses like they’re cries for attention.

It’s so much easier to believe that there’s nothing wrong when the illness you’re dealing with is “invisible.” My own mother has told me to “pull myself straight” with regards to my anxiety disorder.

I’m currently on medication and have regular appointments with both a psychiatrist and psychologist and am managing my mental health as best I can, but I am one of the lucky few. I am aware I have a mental illness, I have accepted my diagnosis and am working on managing it. I’m fortunate enough to have medical aid to cover my medication and therapy. But can many people from my community say the same?

I’ve personally seen how overcrowded state hospitals are and this isn’t even talking about the psychiatric wards. People sit for hours on end and wait, often giving up entire days from work just to get much needed medication or an appointment with a doctor who then maybe sees them for 10 minutes.

“Only six public sector psychiatrists serve the whole of Limpopo, mainly from general hospitals. Hayani hospital, a 390-bed mental health specialist hospital, where in 2016, a psychiatric nurse was killed by an inpatient, has currently no psychiatrist.”

And while I know there are South Africans of all races affected by this, this issue is more prevalent in previously disadvantaged communities, which predominately consist of people of colour.

Then there’s the issue of the shocking conditions of the mental health services in South Africa. According to a press release, members of the South African Society for Psychiatrists (SASOP) Public-Sector Psychiatrists’ forum have reported on the shocking state of care in their respective regions after the critical conditions found in state mental health hospitals. Some of these unaddressed issues have been raised in the Health Ombudsperson’s report from February this year.

Prof Bernard Janse van Rensburg, president of SASOP, says Limpopo province and the Eastern Cape suffer the most severe lack of resources. “Only six public sector psychiatrists serve the whole of Limpopo, mainly from general hospitals. Hayani hospital, a 390-bed mental health specialist hospital, where in 2016, a psychiatric nurse was killed by an inpatient, has currently no psychiatrist.”

The report found Mpumulanga and the Northern Cape has no public-sector psychiatry representation whilst in Kwa-Zulu Natal, a massive specialist staffing crisis exists whereby only 20 of the 45 specialist posts are filled.

Basically, there is a severe lack of resources for the mentally ill in various provinces around the country.

Remember the Esidimeni 94? The mental health patients who all died because they were moved from Gauteng hospitals to dodgy, ill-equipped NGOs? According to Health24, while almost all the remaining Life Esidimeni psychiatric patients have been transferred back to hospital, the structure of psychiatry in SA is falling apart as warned by a group of doctors.

...an estimated 75% of people with psychiatric illnesses in South Africa aren’t getting the help they so desperately need.

“The SA healthcare system is totally fragmented and broken. Esidimeni was just the tip of the iceberg," Prof Bernard Janse van Rensburg, president of SASOP told Health24.

This isn’t even talking about those who are in denial about their mental health and are walking around with undiagnosed and untreated mental health issues. According to GroundUp, an estimated 75% of people with psychiatric illnesses in South Africa aren’t getting the help they so desperately need.

This makes me angry, but also incredibly sad. I know what it’s like to feel like you’re not coping with an undiagnosed disease and having to struggle because of it. Now I’m armed with the privilege of not only medical aid, but being aware of my mental illness and being able to treat it.

But there are so many people of my heritage or similar out there who cannot say the same. To them, not being tormented by their abuser, or sexually assaulted, or otherwise physically harmed is good enough. Most likely, they'll never get to a place where they can address their mental health issues because depression is a luxury that the poor cannot afford.

Disclaimer: The views of columnists published on W24 are their own and therefore do not necessarily represent the views of W24.

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