RE­MOV­ING THE TABOO TAG FROM MEN­TAL ILL­NESS

Celebri­ties talk frankly about their jour­ney with men­tal health, writes Marchelle Abra­hams

The Star Early Edition - - FRONT PAGE -

WHEN lo­cal TV pre­sen­ter Sam Cowen re­leased her tell-all mem­oir From Whiskey To Wa­ter last year, noth­ing pre­pared her for the back­lash that would en­sue. In the book she doc­u­ments her bat­tle with booze and anx­i­ety.

Her story was one many could re­late to, and she felt it opened the door for a frank dis­cus­sion on al­co­hol abuse.

Many com­mended her for be­ing hon­est and straight­for­ward, while the me­dia ridiculed her, call­ing her a drunk and bad per­son. So­cial me­dia trolls had it in for her – she even de­scribes tak­ing one Twit­ter user to task af­ter his tweet cut to the bone.

“No one called me and asked what the real story was, in­stead they sen­sa­tion­alised my story to sell head­lines,” she says.

The Mar­ried At First Sight host has been sober for 15 years now. But her jour­ney to so­bri­ety started when she was forced to take a closer look at her re­la­tion­ship with al­co­hol and eaves­drop­ping on a con­ver­sa­tion her daugh­ter was hav­ing with a friend, com­par­ing the amount of wine their moms drank.

“It was like re­al­is­ing 10 rows into knit­ting that you’ve dropped a stitch!”

With her his­tory of anx­i­ety and sen­sory over­load dis­or­der, Cowen re­alised she started drink­ing to take the edge off, and therein was the crux of her al­co­hol ad­dic­tion. At age 28, she then started tak­ing med­i­ca­tion to les­son her anx­i­ety at­tacks.

But her story has high­lighted South Africa’s re­la­tion­ship with men­tal health prob­lems and how we view them.

It’s still taboo and some­thing not to be openly spo­ken about.

Now an ad­vo­cate for men­tal health aware­ness, Cowen dis­plays her emo­tional scars with pride: “It’s not some­thing to be ashamed of. There’s so many of us that if we all just take hands in the same room, there’s no need to be em­bar­rassed.”

Men­tal health is re­ceiv­ing at­ten­tion this month as July is known as Men­tal Health Aware­ness Month.

An­other well-known tele­vi­sion per­son­al­ity Penny Le­byane ex­pe­ri­enced the same vit­ri­olic jibes at the hands of the me­dia. Her of­fence: find­ing her­self in a psych ward just days af­ter the birth of her son.

“Four days af­ter my son is born, I have this break­down in my home. We had to call my doc­tor and she says: ‘she has to be ad­mit­ted’.

“As we drive to the hospi­tal, I can see the head­lines: ‘Dra­matic Penny gives birth and dies in hospi­tal’. You can imag­ine the fear that I felt.”

But Le­byane says her big­gest fear was the me­dia back­lash, be­cause she was the girl who spoke her mind and had it “to the T”.

Twelve years later she can laugh it off and de­scribes her break­down as pop­u­lar cul­ture fod­der.

While in hospi­tal and with no form of anonymity, Le­byane jok­ingly tells of a mo­ment a worker ap­proached her and asked if she’s the girl from TV in Zulu. “Oh my God, as beau­ti­ful as you are, you are also sick in the head.”

Right there and then, she re­alised peo­ple needed to change their per­cep­tion of what men­tal ill­ness is. Le­byane came across The South African De­pres­sion & Anx­i­ety Group (Sadag) when she saw their posters while in hospi­tal, and knew from then on that she was go­ing to be a cham­pion for men­tal health. She now uses her in­flu­ence in the me­dia to talk about men­tal health is­sues and rid it of its taboo tag. “I came from a vil­lage in Bush­buck Ridge where the minute you couldn’t deal with emo­tions and all sorts of things, witch­craft was the first thing it went to.

“And I thought we need to talk about this and un­der­stand what are the is­sues around men­tal health.”

Since then, she also learnt that she had clin­i­cal de­pres­sion be­fore be­ing di­ag­nosed with post­na­tal de­pres­sion. “Be­cause of work and other en­vi­ron­ments, I had found my­self hav­ing dif­fer­ent episodes that I’ve had to learn to man­age.

“I had to use my brain to heal my­self, and re­move the shame that comes with it.”

It’s still taboo and some­thing not to be openly spo­ken about

IN­FLU­ENCE: Penny Le­byane uses her me­dia in­flu­ence to turn the tide on men­tal health taboos.

FRANK: Sam Cowen re­counts back­lash af­ter dis­clos­ing her al­co­holism.

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