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

CityPress - - News - For as­sis­tance with de­pres­sion, con­tact Sadag on 080 021 2223 or visit for more in­for­ma­tion

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

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