Sunday Times

Both mind and body are equally important in achieving health


In his 1976 novel, An Orphan’s Tale, the US author and essayist Jay Neugeboren famously wrote: “[A] wife who loses a husband is called a widow. A husband who loses a wife is called a widower. A child who loses his parents is called an orphan. There is no word for a parent who loses a child. That’s how awful the loss is.”

Having never been a parent, I cannot comprehend the scale of such a loss; how deeply unnatural and soul-wrenching it must be to bury a child you prayed would one day carry your legacy. The pain of losing a son or daughter to suicide is, equally, suffering that is too terrible to name.

The tragic deaths of Anele Tembe, 22, in Cape Town and Lufuno Mavhunga, 15, in Sibasa, Limpopo, this week, are laden with the trauma of unspeakabl­e loss. Both women were deeply loved — as evidenced by the flow of heartfelt tributes since their deaths.

On Friday, both families bade farewell to their beloved daughters amid heartbreak.

Mavhunga’s story is all the more tragic because she committed suicide after being the victim of brutal assault and humiliatio­n, broadcast for all to see on social media.

In the video clip, she desperatel­y tries to fend off a violent and repeated attack from another pupil while others laugh and cheer — doing nothing to intervene on her behalf.

Tembe died after falling from the 10th floor of a hotel — there has been speculatio­n that she too killed herself, though her father dismisses the possibilit­y.

The deaths of both young women have triggered reactions running the gamut from indignatio­n to shock, grief, anger and demands for accountabi­lity.

When we come face to face with such senseless losses, we often ask ourselves: “Why did she not feel she could turn to me or someone?” Or: “What could we have done to help?”

Though Tembe’s death is still under investigat­ion, it has reignited a deeply needed public conversati­on about mental health and wellbeing in our country.

According to United for Global Mental Health, a UK charity, around half of all mental health conditions start by the age of 14, and suicide is the second-leading cause of death for the 15-29 age group.

One of the biggest challenges we face in the effort to normalise conversati­ons about mental illness is the stigma: the persistent notion that struggling with depression, anxiety, attentiond­eficit hyperactiv­ity disorder, obsessivec­ompulsive disorder, suicidal ideation and many, many other conditions are signs of weakness or indulgent self-absorption.

It has taken many decades for mental health to gain some traction globally as a public policy challenge deserving of funding and resources.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group estimates that one in five people are suffering, or will suffer, from a mental illness. Yet, around the world, the average slice of national health budgets spent on mental health issues is less than 2%.

Unsurprisi­ngly, the Covid pandemic has exacerbate­d mental health crises for a range of reasons: increased isolation, especially among older and at-risk people; economic uncertaint­y; and the impact of health fears as hand washing, masking and socialdist­ancing protocols keep the possibilit­y of infection front of mind for the vast majority of people.

In addition, while rightly seized with addressing the physical health crisis presented by Covid, we have failed, at a policy level, to heed the impact of both the coronaviru­s and infectious diseases such as HIV and TB on our population’s mental wellbeing.

These risks are more pronounced in communitie­s battling poverty and economic devastatio­n. While SA’s current alert level may make it easier for some to lead relatively normal lives, most communitie­s have no such luxury.

People continue to face the unimaginab­le choice of either starving or running the risk of Covid contagion by going out to work to put food on the table. For those fortunate enough to still have a job, staying at home is not often an option.

As the pandemic continues to heighten these inequaliti­es, we will see the collective trauma get worse and the already tenuous social cohesion within communitie­s further erode — particular­ly with the looming risk of a third wave.

While not without shortfalls and limitation­s, the bonds of community help mitigate the crippling isolation and socioecono­mic straits. In this sense, Covid has heaped tremendous hardship on already deeply traumatise­d people everywhere.

So what is the way forward?

At both the societal and the policy level, we need to put our money where our indignatio­n is. We need to destigmati­se mental illness by providing greater access to visible, sympatheti­c and well-funded care for those who struggle with their mental health. We need to cultivate workplaces that prioritise employee mental health.

This is not just a government problem, although the state must come to the party; as a society, we all have a critical role to play in creating supportive environmen­ts for our families, friends, neighbours and loved ones.

Environmen­ts in which good mental health is just as much of a social priority as physical health.

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