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WHEN I was eight, I was sent home from school because they did not understand why I was “acting out”.
I suffered from depression. But my family kept sending me back to school as they were convinced I was “seeking attention”.
I am not alone in my experience. Many other students have dealt with depression on their own because it is not regarded as an “African” illness. So, it is not easily recognised.
In Xhosa, Ndebele, Shona, Pedi, Tsonga and Venda cultures, there is no term for depression, only terms that describe their actions on the exterior. These terms include ukhatazekile (isiZulu for hurt/ worried/ broken-hearted); hatello yamunagano (Sesotho for oppression of the mind/mind is weighed down) and kufungisisa (Shona for overthinking).
Depression is characterised by the Health Guide.org as “living in a black hole” or having a feeling of impending doom or bleakness. However, some depressed people don’t feel sad a
t all, they may feel lifeless, empty, and disengaged. Men, in particular, may even feel angry, aggressive, and restless. Depression makes it tough to function because day to day “normal” activities become a chore and difficult to undertake.
Common symptoms of depression include headaches, emotional outbursts, acute sadness, isolation, self-loathing, weakness and stomach pains, to name but a few.
Trish Chikura, a University of North-West student, said that before she was diagnosed with Dysthymia, which is a neurotic depression, she had been living with it for over six years. She became aware of it initially when she was 15. “Deep inside, I was empty and had recurring anxiety attacks. I grew up in an unstable household. I saw things as a child that no child should see,” Chikura said.
She said her family, despite being the “catalyst of her depression”, didn’t take too well to her being depressed.
“They are still in denial. Some part of me thinks they don’t see depression as a big thing.”
Depression is not always caused by one isolated incident. While the root cause of depression varies, most cases are usually triggered by a major incident that the patient may have witnessed or suffered.Twenty-two year-old Braamfontein resident Dimitri Leroy Tshabalala suffered from depression when his mother, who was his support system, died.
He realised he was depressed when he suffered from constant headaches, weakness and feelings of loneliness and self-loathing. He became suicidal.
“Now that she was gone, I was at the point I tried to end my life on many occasions but failed,” he said.
Tshabalala said his family was unresponsive to the fact that he was depressed, and his friends acted as his support system.
Because mental illness is an unexplainable phenomenon in African cultures, it has proved difficult for many to get the help they need.
The fact that these diseases are identified with their physical or exterior symptoms makes it more difficult to deal with the root cause.
Wits Vuvuzela spoke to Seth Serake, a Johannesburg based traditional healer, who treats patients suffering from depression. For him, depression was caused by “ancestral problems”. He prepared an oral concoction which would get rid of the depression in two weeks, he claimed.
“Usually those who have depression suffer from ancestral problems … I give them a mixture made of plants that we boil for 30 minutes. They must take one tablespoon three times a day for two weeks. Guarantee in one month the depression is out of the body,” Serake said.
The fact that the concept of depression is clearly not fully comprehended adds to the difficulty in recognising it in its early stages.
Dr Vinitha Jithoo, of the Wits Psychology department, said that the issue of understanding depression in African contexts is not so much about people’s ignorance of the disease but more about the lack of a direct linguistic connection to the disease itself.
They identify depression differently, she said. “This is done by connecting the physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, to the disease but not the mental symptoms,” Jithoo said.
The treatment for depression can be found in acknowledgement of the depression, therapy and sometimes antidepressants, according to MayoClinic.org. These procedures take some time as it also requires lifestyle changes such as exercise, better nutrition, reduction of stress and more sleep.
Wits Vuvuzela approached different people of different ethnic backgrounds and asked them what they thought depression was.
Most of them connected depression to over-thinking, stress, worry and just basic “not feeling well”. Some even went as far as saying that “it does not exist” and when Wits Vuvuzela explained the symptoms they called it “attention-seeking” or “laziness”.
It is important to identify depression in its early stages for it can lead to self-harm and suicide.
In my own experience the most important thing is to get acknowledgement that the disease exists. The hardest part is managing it. It has got easier with time, however.