The silent killer.

Many diseases in world history have been given that moniker- HIV/AIDS, diabetes, even tuberculosis. Yet, the one killer that is almost never spoken about- the true silent killer that lurks around our society- is depression.

As a young black man, I can tell you that talk of mental health- never mind depression- is rare, to the point of non-existence. I don’t know if its a direct result of apartheid (being so powerless against a stronger and “more intelligent” foe), or if its something embedded into our collective culture. But dare mention the word “depression” to the average black person, and they’ll probably laugh at you for speaking about “white men’s diseases”.

I read Bonnie Mbuli’s autobiography, ‘Eyebags and Dimples’ a few months ago, and its unsurprisingly too common how many parents behave the way Bonnie’s mother did towards their own children. And this is not without its problems.

Parents often use fear, coercion and violence to scare their children into being good, quiet and obedient people. This is done in the name of ‘discipline’. Then an hour later, the parent is all smiles, and cheerful. This dichotomy is not lost on the child.
As the child grows and parents feel threatened by the onset of puberty (and perceived loss of control), the punishments escalate. What was a smack on the bottom is now a belt bashing. For the extremists, they especially buy whips. Add to that the all-too-frequent insults: “rubbish”, “mgodoyi”, “uyinto nje”, and we have a mentally scarred child.

Our initial opinions and formations of the inner and outer world aren’t just discarded as we get older, they simply lie deep in the subconscious as our rational, conscious side appears to run the show.
But always, the pain lingers. It’s there. It’s there every time you look at children being hugged, kissed, and told that they are loved, when you know you rarely (if ever) saw that side to your parent.

As Bonnie wrote, “suffering is worn like a badge of honour”. And so, we meet other black people who suffered through the same trauma; the same dichotomies; the same pain. Then, it is generally accepted as a universal truth- that a lack of love shown is a small price to pay for “making it through high school” and “earning a bursary because I was a virgin”, and so forth.
But that kind of childhood can only facilitate a broken person. A person who does not have the capacities to deal with his or her emotions. A person who thinks that fear and reverence are essential in the expression of love. Magnify that person by a few million and we have a country full of verbally and physically abused men and women, who have no other template but to be abusive to their offspring. And the cycle continues.

Some say the situation isn’t as bad as I make it out to be. Then why is the very notion of talking about and discussing our childhood traumas met with such ambivalence?
We hear that an old school mate takes antidepressants, we visit our friends and they cry in front of us and talk about how they can’t cope with living, we see that a young family member is cutting their wrists…and what do we do? We laugh. We gossip. We go “LOLCRAZY”. We say they’ve been bewitched. We refuse to acknowledge one possible scenario- that maybe, just maybe, they have a legitimate medical condition, and  that they need legitimate medical assistance.

“No! It can’t be!”, you think to yourself. You list your struggles, which are way more challenging than the other person (because of course, they are), and you’re not talking to yourself and slitting your wrists.
You cry yourself to sleep, instead. You hit your child with the fury of a wounded bear. You sometimes feel helpless, sure, but you suffer in silence, because dammit that’s the African way!

And that’s what our archetype is, as black South Africans- we identify with our pains and our hurts so much that having them becomes a part of our identity. Eventually, though, pain needs an outlet. And whether we’re aware of it or not, by keeping silent on mental disabilities, we’re passing on the pain.


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