Depression in black & white
The spectre of depression and mental health issues experienced by black men in SA comes to light in a brave new photo series by Thembela ‘Nymless’ Ngayi from Cape Town, reports Garreth van Niekerk
By the time you have read the first three words of this story, one person in South Africa has attempted suicide. Only 30 seconds later, a person will actually take their own life, adding to the 22 suicides that occur in South Africa every day, according to 2014 figures from the SA Federation for Mental Health.
The painful causes that lie behind these tragic losses affecting our families and communities every year – 7 582 recorded local cases in 2015 alone, many of them preventable – remain dark secrets that are only discussed when it is too late – or they are never spoken of.
There is particular concern about the impact of depression on young black South African men.
According to a 2014 report by the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), there are 4.6 male suicides for every female one in South Africa, and one in four South African teenagers have attempted suicide.
In the arts, where the stereotype of the artist as a depressed, tortured Van Gogh-style caricature continues to this day, South African writers have for years tried to cast the light of nuance on the situation. From the famous second novel of K Sello Duiker, The Quiet Violence of Dreams (2001), through to Songeziwe Mahlangu’s debut novel, Penumbra (2013), mental breakdown has been the backdrop to the plights of young leading men.
Indications are there will be a lot more of this kind of creative work in years to come.
One Cape Town-based photographer, Thembela “Nymless” Ngayi, has recently released a photo essay titled The Great African Horror Story.
In the work, the artist constructs a series of scenes to tackle his own struggles with depression, blackness and masculinity in the hope that he can raise more awareness and understanding of depression.
“In society, men, especially in black communities, often feel unable to reach out because of the stigma attached to symptoms of any mental condition, as well as the stereotypical thinking entrenched by society on how men are supposed to behave,” said Ngayi this week.
“Seeking help or showing signs of any emotion, like crying, is immediately perceived to be weak. The result is, we end up seeking comfort in alcohol and some men resort to spousal abuse as a way to validate our masculinity, while others go to extreme lengths such as suicide.”
Ngayi watched in horror last year when a 21-year-old man jumped from the rooftop of Cavendish Mall in Cape Town. “The crowd egged him on to jump off,” he said.
“We have become this desensitised society without empathy for people who are suicidal. It is a reflection that not enough education is being done on how to deal with depression, even though organisations such as Sadag have been incredible with their efforts to establish easily accessible facilities for people suffering from depression.”
In the Great African Horror Story, two fictional characters, presumably a romantic couple, are depicted in stylised suburban desperation, where spiritual suffering stares out of the darkness, demanding you pay attention to it.
“It was a form of therapy for me. This was my way of expressing how I felt at the time when I was at my lowest point and channelling those feelings through visual work. I needed an outlet to release my emotions.”
Cassey Chambers, Sadag’s operations director, said the artist was not alone. “What we have experienced in our 22 years of working with anxiety and depression is that the stigma in the black community is huge and difficult to overcome. There isn’t even an isiZulu word for depression. Therefore, the illness does not exist in the imagination of those dealing with it.
“Black men are brought up not to talk about these sorts of issues, because, you know, cowboys don’t cry.
“We know men are five times more likely to commit suicide than women, so it is really encouraging to see projects like this being done that deal with a real illness that can be treated and, hopefully, prevented.”
Meanwhile, according to a 702 news report, Sadag is battling to keep its doors open due to a lack of funding. Its helpline, which is open 24 hours a day, now receives, on average, 400 calls a day, compared with last year’s 150.
REFLECTIONS OF PAIN Cape Town-based photographer Thembela Ngayi portrays the torment and impact that depression has on African families in his monochrome photo essay titled The Great African Horror Story