Johannesburg - Today marks World Mental Health Day.
As a child growing up in the Alexandra township, our days as children were spent alongside many people living from mental health illnesses and families dealing with related issues.
For those who lived their lives with all sorts of ailments, our habit in the township was to simply dismiss them as "crazy" and ensure they never meddled with our "perfect and normal" lives.
Some in society were well-versed in dishing out advice on who belonged at Sterkfontein Hospital because of azithi mzala - loosely translated in Zulu as "They've Gone Mad."
In a village, if a successful professional returns home because he suffers from schizophrenia, a conclusion would be reached that he is bewitched.
For instance, a church lady I once knew had a son who dealt with mental health.
His name was Sphamandla. He was a handsome lad but he limped and drooled from time to time. Because of his eccentric nature, he inherited a silly name like Popo.
"Popo is coming, run away," kids would laughingly call out as they dashed off.
Their parents would dare not reprimand them. Instead, they would join in the funfair.
Some would mimic his gestures.
I, on the other hand, was deeply terrified of Sphamandla and kept my distance.
So his mother would shield him from all the cruelty and would convince him he was a "special boy".
In my adulthood, I have learnt of many people like Popo and how many of them are shielded by their loved ones, particularly in the black community - all out of shame.
I also reflect on the recent deaths of the many Life Esidimeni patients and am convinced now more than ever that families can no longer afford to hide their loved ones or be let down by government health institutions. It cannot be that in severe cases of mental health families are unable to enlist their next of kin at suitable places because of exorbitant costs of accommodation and medication.
It is incumbent on all of us - whether dealing with anxiety, depression or a family member in desperate need of medical assistance - not to hide and remain silent but seek all the help we need.
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