Dear Black Parents: Mental illness Is A Thing

by - July 18, 2017


According to the World Health Organization, worldwide 10-20% of children and adolescents experience mental illness. The National Youth at Risk Survey conducted in South Africa, which focuses on children and adolescents between Grade 8 and Grade 11 highlighted that 24% of the youth surveyed had experienced feelings of depression, hopelessness and sadness while a further 21% had attempted suicide at least once. Mental illness is a thing.

Generally non-white races don’t take recognition of the fact that a child can be sick and the cause can be mental illness. Just because it doesn’t show physically (which it does to those who self-harm) it doesn't automatically disqualify it from being a sickness. Parents have the ideology that a sickness is only a sickness if you can see the effects physically, a misconception common in black households.

I feel strongly about this topic that I decided to do a Digital-interview with an ex-high school friend of mine - Usiphile Shasha, whom I knew was suffering from Mental illness, to give me a perspective of what it feels like to be in a black family where mental illness is not seen as an illness but witchcraft.


I asked her how she would describe her mental illness to someone who can’t comprehend what it is, she replied:The best description for depression or any mental illness is fatigue, like when my little sisters ask me what's wrong and why I take so many meds I always tell them it's because my brain is exhausted… like it's strained and the meds help give it energy like multi-vitamins… but like for the brain, because that really is what's happening in a way. Most people (my father included) tend to think it's a spirit of some sort, they think taking you to a priest or a traditional healer will help it and that's not the case.”

Just like admission to your addiction can be as painful as rehabilitation, so is admission that you are sick and need proper care. Sometimes we ignore the signs and sometimes we can’t even see them, so I asked her How she knew that she was mentally ill, she replied: When I sit and reflect to back then, because I was so misinformed I did not know that I was sick, I've actually been sick since childhood. I was a very depressed child, I started thinking about suicide at the age of 8 I remember I started cutting at the age of 10. But what I used to do was that I used to take my episodes out on my hair. Whenever I was having a bad episode I used to lock myself up in my room and just take a pair of scissors and cut all my hair off or do something weird with it. I only got officially diagnosed the year of my 16th birthday after my first noticed suicide attempt. After that the doctors demanded that I see a therapist at least three times a week and that's when I got diagnosed. Although I was misdiagnosed at first.”




In a situation where no-one understands what you're going through, I asked her if she feels alone, like she couldn't tell anyone out of fear that they wouldn't understand, she replied: Yes, I do feel alone, people tend to forget that there are different strokes for different folks. Like I am generally unhappy. l am unable to be happy and they always make me feel so awful about that, they always tell me that happiness is a choice but the problem is, it's a choice I don't have. They always belittle every problem I have and they don't understand that the depression and the bipolar can take something so small, like a pin prick and make it into something as big as a rupture. Whenever I try to speak to someone they always remind me of the things I cannot have, like being happy and being mentally stable. They never know how to handle it.”

As mentioned in the beginning, A majority of black parents are misinformed or have a skewed version of mental illness and its cause and with that in mind, I asked her if she thought black parents give enough attention to Mental illness, with her experience of her parent’s reactions/ actions in mind, she replied: “No, not at all, they do not give it the correct attention. I know my dad thinks I need a ritual because he believes that I am bewitched. I used to get into trouble with my mother every time I self-harmed. I would even get grounded and all and get the hiding of my life. Also with my suicide attempts, she just said I'm going through a stage and it's a phase that will fade out. I don't know if it's my parents or what, but they never paid attention to the fact that I'm mentally ill up until I got booked into the Psychiatric Hospital. My parents were so convinced that this was just a cry for attention and I'm, in fact, just weak and not sick.

My next question was if she thought that white children have it easier if they are struggling with any form of Mental illness, in terms of support & Understanding from their parents/relatives, she replied: “Yes they do, because their parents tend to cater to their illnesses more often than black children. White parents are informed when it comes to mental illnesses and they understand that it's not a spirit of some sort.”




I Asked her what her parents' reaction to her illness is/was when they found out she was really sick, and whether they were understanding, she replied: I'm not sure if it's them not understanding or them being ignorant, because they're very educated. They just have that mentality of "this isn't a black person's illness" or "not my child, I can't have a weak child" or "you don't use your traditional medicine that's why the spirits got to you". My mother, for the longest time ever, did not allow me to go to therapy and my dad was convinced that I'm just wasting the medical aid funds. They were so convinced that I wasn't sick that when I got booked into the hospital they got the shock of their lives. I remember my dad texted me when he came to visit me there and told me how his heart broke seeing me so weak and fragile, he said that he didn't know I was that brittle. He thinks having a mental illness is a weakness instead of a sickness. The fact that my sister is also Bipolar took a toll on the family and then I felt like my parents couldn't handle both kids being sick, so I kept my illness from them. (However, they never cared to check up or ask, if they did have the time for me I am pretty sure I would have told them.) They always had their hands full with my sister so I took a back seat and just nursed myself. As a result, when my dad found out he had the shock of his life. He told me that he thought it was only my sister who was sick. Like they've only ever given her the platform of being sick and not the both of us, so I kept my illness to myself. My mother when she found out made everything about her, she started talking about how she feels like she's failed as a parent by having a sick child and not even knowing it and all that.

I was extremely curious as to what it’s like spending some time at a psychiatric hospital, and so I asked her this. She Replied:
I was very fortunate that the hospitals I've been admitted into were private hospitals, so they were really amazing. (They're better than my student accommodation place😂) We did a lot of recreational activities like art and stuff and that made me feel pretty great because I didn't know I was creative and it's so relaxing. It was frustrating however because we had to attend group sessions and I don't like people🙄🌝sometimes though you don't get so lucky.  Because that hospital was a voluntary hospital, they don't force you to do much that you can't handle. The worst part was when I was on suicide watch, they put me in a high care unit and they literally used to watch me all the time, even when I go to the bathroom I wasn't allowed to lock the door, even when I just sit in the ward in my bed I was being watched. I wasn't allowed outside the ward at all, only times I could leave was to go to the bathroom. They even had the food brought to me.

I Asked her what the prevailing race was in the psychiatric hospital to get a slight view of if black parents/people in general are studying to breakdown the misconception surrounded by mental illness. Although it doesn't paint a vivid picture - due to some black people not having access to private facilities that cater to mental illness’ and other factors’ it gives a minuscule idea. She Replied: “The prevailing race there was white people, but as the time went by more and more people of color were being admitted too. Something I realized whilst I was there by talking with the other patients was the fact that it takes so much for a black person to admit that they're sick and to go and get help and to not recognize that as a weakness. The women there told me how hard it was for them to come to terms with the fact that they are in fact sick and it isn't their fault. That's another reason why there aren't a lot of black people in the hospital.




I asked her if it helped being there, and what she got out from her days spent there, she replied: “The month  spent there was very great, because I was in a contained environment. It was great to finally forget about everything and just be tired and depressed and bipolar and learn how to deal with it and manage it myself and all. The fact that the nurses understood that I am sick was another remarkable thing. Them, along with the therapists, were so patient with me. They understood that it isn't my fault and they taught me how to be patient with myself and how to handle myself. Like after every self-harm episode they just took me to the infirmary, cleaned up my wounds and covered them for me because they knew I didn't want anyone to see them. And after every single relapse they didn't remind me or make me feel bad about it. They really understood. The worst part was leaving because I now had to adjust to life outside the contained environment and being on my own again which was a problem since I am a hazard to myself. So yes, the hospital really did help because a lot has changed even though it isn't major changes I'm still taking it one step at a time. For example, now I've learnt to wait up until myself harm scars heal before self-harming again, I no longer double up on myself.”


It's high time that black parents acknowledge the fact that mental illness is not a white mans disease but can actually affect anyone. In a generation where more and more children are being pressured and stressed at schools its an ever increasing problem among us as the youth. Its not only black parents that need to remove the stigma around mental illness as being witchcraft rather than an actual illness, The black community as a whole that's misinformed about such need to get educated on this rising issue. if you'd like to know more check out The south African depression and anxiety group here.  

Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline
0800 70 80 90

Destiny Helpline for Youth & Students
0800 41 42 43

Dr Reddy's Help Line
0800 21 22 23

Suicide Crisis Line
0800 567 567
SMS 31393

SADAG Mental Health Line
011 234 4837

Akeso Psychiatric Response Unit 24 Hour
0861 435 787






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11 comments

  1. This is so serious. Mental illness really needs to be recognised more gosh. Loved this article. So informative

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    Replies
    1. YES! , It is , thank you so much for reading it!

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  2. Yes yes and yes! I am going to have my family read this. My family acts as if it is not a thing I swear... thank you for sharing.

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    1. my family too, so i can totally relate. Thank you for reading!

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  3. This interview was conducted so well and brings great light to such an important topic! Very brave of her to share her story and much needed. Will definitely be sharing!
    Tisha
    www.behindtheschmile.com

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  4. Great post - I love how your friend explained to her siblings what mental illness is. This is so informative

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  5. "its high time that black parents acknowledge the fact that mental illness is not a white mans disease but can actually affect anyone." YES YES YES! I'm sick and tired of hearing this, and "you have so much, what can you possibly feel depressed about." This was a great interview. Relate to so much.

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  6. "my brain is exhausted..." thay broke my heart. Thanks for gettingthe word out

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  7. Everyone needs to read this! Although much emphasis is placed upon educating the black parent, the white parent also needs to be constantly made aware of the rising dangers surrounding this serious topic, and therefore be encouraged to their to invest time in critically listening to their teenagers, and identifying possible symptoms. It has to be a society kind of a thing...ultimately.

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