Sssshhhh! Let’s not talk about it

Sidestepping mental health challenges

A popular student who many admired suffers from mental health problems later in life – and he finds himself alone and virtually shunned. The writer ponders this state of affairs and calls for society to face up to the challenges of mental health.

They say that nostalgia is a seductive liar. It hits you while you least expect it and much like genuine inspiration, it always leaves solely concerned with prolonging that state as long as possible.

For some it’s no more than a chance to reminisce about the past and appreciate the present, but for some it’s a dreadful reminder of how things have fallen apart. This is a story of the latter and it starts on sunny April afternoon when I ran into an old acquaintance from school who I hadn’t spoken to since 2009.

Back in the day Dikgang was one of the popular boys in school. He was a skinny tall dude, and the girls just adored him. While we merely listened to Hip Hop he lived the culture – the baggy jeans, Js & tank tops, with the patented doo-rag was his look.

He was almost athletic, immensely talented with a sketch book & pencil, and crisp with his boxing moves as a school bully once found out while laying out cold next to the library. But my favourite story was the day he fell out of a moving bus on the highway during an epic school trip. The learners were moving up and down the isle of the bus travelling back from Bothaville to Botshabelo. He was caught between a door and a large girl, and as the girl slipped and fell on Dikgang, the door gave in. Seconds later and the momentum saw the girl screaming in his ear as the pair fell hard on the unforgiving tar. Incredibly, they both walked away from the ordeal with no more than an adrenaline high and a few scratches here and there, although his ear drums might have been worse off considering she held her own in a national singing competition.

Matric came & went and while the masses were guessing as to which path to pursue, he went about following his passion and enrolled in a graphics course in a tertiary institution. It’s safe to say that some envied him for how he had a grip on things. I’ve always felt that men who carve their paths instead of stumbling on them tend carry themselves with chivalry, and that was the case with Dikgang back then as well.

So why wait the better part of a decade before talking to him? Simple answer is that his chivalry turned to filth, and those who share his company started avoiding him. His popularity was turned into a curse for it just meant that they were more ears and tongues to spread gossip when life dealt him a bad hand. There is possibly no other form of diseases known to men that does more to damage to one’s dignity than to suffer a mental health problem.

While many would agree that chemotherapy strips its patients of their dignity, we instinctively offer cancer patients sympathy and we empathise with them, qualities we don’t consistently extend to people with declining mental health. We warn kids “don’t talk to crazy people!” and we are often irrationally distraught when a mental health patient approaches the circles we socialise in.

We have successfully stigmatised mental illness to a point where the corporate world sees people suffering from chronic depression as candidates to be declared as invalids – inevitably. Mental illness is such an uncomfortable conversation to have that most communities would render coping with it as an issue exclusively meant for the nuclear family. It is a curious reality that even now, many patients cannot access care facilities and the sort of treatment they require; and as such the unintended & rather unfortunate consequence is that substance abuse becomes one of the few coping mechanisms available, further exacerbating the deterioration of the mental health of the affected.

It was the same pattern for Dikgang. He dropped out of school, and his social status was relegated to the “stare, but don’t talk to him” level – a status that ironically embraces talking and laughing about him behind his back. Those close to him have speculated everything from head trauma to witch craft as the source of his declining mental state, but I think it’s likely to be an inherited disorder.

The unfortunate reality is without knowledge of his medical diagnosis we can only speculate. Perhaps there is a line between our curiosity and his family’s privacy, and that line – as things stand – does not falter.

It was while we were chatting that he shared a quote he heard during the keynote address at his matric farewell. His long term memory is obviously better than mine because it was barely a month ago and I can’t recall what the quote said but he still does. Pretty sharp considering that that speech was made in 2009.

I do however remember it was a message of hope, something that was meant to inspire and motivate, but its significance was how personal it was. It wasn’t so much the quote but more who was being quoted. You see that key note address that year was made by my sister, a minor detail to most but one that inspired me to tell this story. “I’ll get you the dvd,” he said jokingly when our time together had come to to an end, since then I have seen Dikgang once on some random morning.

His days are spent enjoying his lunch box at some corner or another and talking to himself about his sketches perhaps. He does not sell them, but if you ever saw one you would be left in awe by how professional it is; such is the man’s talent. And as clichéd as it may sound we often need to lose ourselves in order to find our way, maybe this tragedy is the journey he must travel in order to create his magnum opus.

Considering that a significant number of South Africans are genetically predisposed to mental illness, our culture is set up in a way that doesn’t do us much favour when it comes to coping with it. When medical practitioners warn us about cannabis induced psychosis, we opt to believe either the guy that says it’s a myth or the conspiracy theorists that say it only happens when the seeds were modified at a molecular level.

When a friend says “I’m depressed” we say let’s go have a drink, and we alienate those who decline because we think they’re not affable enough. We offer academics who research and publish on physical illnesses more support than we do those who focus on the mental health illnesses. But our biggest flaw in my opinion is how we sweep it all under the carpet. We just don’t talk about it, and the few times we do it’s too often in a negative light.