I was around four years old when I had my first encounter with mental illness, it started when I became acquainted with a boy who lived in a house directly behind mine. We formed a friendship through a wired fence and shared a fascination with clover leaves which grew nearby. It wasn’t long before I realised that his eccentric personality and expressions were what set him apart from the other children. I became aware of how strangers treated him differently. In hindsight, I became conscious of the fact that mental illness was a rejected reality in black culture.
Mental illness, which is often developed in adolescence and becomes more notable in adulthood, remains a remote territory in most black communities as members are ill informed regarding its prevalent forms. This means that a large amount of people are misinformed about these issues, have formed stereotypes and there remains a stigma attached to them. Mental illnesses such as depression, anxiety and substance abuse have existed in black communities as well as other cultures, but are widely attributed to personality and lifestyle. However, the confrontation of these illnesses has varied and there have been few conversations that challenge the stigma.
In dealing with depression and anxiety, black communities often reduce it to minor stress, whilst seeking help from a mental health professional is shrugged off as a “white person thing” and that you’re “just exaggerating the whole situation”. When coming to terms with the complexity of illness such as psychotic depression, we keep it hidden from the rest of society. Social anthropologist Dr Amuyunzu-Nyamongo observes that “the social environment in many African countries does not nurture good mental health,”. The pressure which is directed onto young males to remain highly competitive, suppress feelings and guard their emotions may trigger mental illness. Depression often manifests and in some cases translates into substance abuse, which may be simplified as a lifestyle choice in black communities.
(I then start wondering why some of us can relate to having an uncle who always came home in a drunken state on the weekends).
The fear of judgement is often the core reason black people find it challenging to discuss their experiences with this illness. Avoidance of the conversations about mental illness has become a coping mechanism and a rejection of its reality. In beginning to understand that mental illness is not a reflection of what being black really is, we shall be able to have conversations whereby we relate to each other in what has remained a silent world. When people take the initiative to learn and engage with issues surrounding mental illness, they will gradually involve the community and it will ultimately remove the stigma which exists in African cultures and societies.
Amuyunzu-Nyamongo, M. (2013). The social and cultural aspects of mental health in African societies. Commonwealth Health Partnerships. Available from:
Illustration: Ndumiso Nyoni
Article: Sesona Mahlahla