SAFE SPACE: Sam Cowen and Julian Turner at Discovery Mental Health Summit.
SAFE SPACE: Sam Cowen and Julian Turner at Discovery Mental Health Summit.
HELPING OTHERS UNDERSTAND: Penny Lebyane uses her media influence to turn the tide on mental health taboos.
HELPING OTHERS UNDERSTAND: Penny Lebyane uses her media influence to turn the tide on mental health taboos.
WHEN local TV presenter Sam Cowen released her tell-all memoir From Whiskey to Water in 2016, 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 that 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 describes taking a 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. 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 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 are 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.

Penny Lebyane, another well-known television personality, 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 when 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 and Anxiety Group (Sadag) when she saw their posters while in hospital, and knew since then 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,” adds Lebyane.

Since then, she has also learnt that she had clinical depression before being diagnosed with post-natal depression. “Because of work and other environments, I had found myself having different episodes that I have had to learn to manage.

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

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