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Gomora actor’s suicide highilights the plight of entertainers

Published May 15, 2022

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Gomora actor Siyabonga Zubane who committed suicide

Johannesburg - The death of Gomora actor Siyabonga Zubane has highlighted the shortcomings of the entertainment industry and the issue of mental health, not only in the country but across the globe. The 23-year-old actor is the latest entertainer to take his own life.

Zubane, who played Sdumo on Mzansi Magic’s popular series Gomora, died last Saturday at his home in Soweto, sending shockwaves across the country. This is the third suicide in the entrainment industry this year, following that of actor Patrick Shai and hip-hop star Riky Rick.

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The global phenomenon of suicide is reflected in the Mental Health Atlas, which is released every three years. The latest one, released in 2020, is a compilation of data provided by countries around the world on mental health policies, legislation, financing, human resources, availability and utilisation of services and data collection systems. It serves as a guide for countries in the development and planning of mental health services. According to the World Health Organisation, globally, suicide rates in men are just over twice as high as for women and suicide accounted for an estimated 800 000 deaths worldwide every year.

According to clinical psychologist and researcher Anele Siswana, in South Africa many more men than women commit suicide – men's suicide rates are around 37 per 100 000 population, whereas women's are just below 10. People commit suicide because they believe they have exhausted all other possible alternatives to deal with their problems.

"At the rate that things are happening, it shows that not much has been done. There’s always a reactive response, rather than a responsive approach. It’s only when an actor or musician has committed suicide that we begin to think about this phenomenon (suicide among artists)."

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He said the jobs of artists, especially in South Africa, don’t offer any form of security, making it difficult to have a “5-year plan” or get into contracts with service providers, and the normal monthly credits that one would deal with financially.

“It’s near impossible to even think about bonds and car leasing. Artists have to buy things in cash. In the end, if one can’t afford such a lifestyle, it’s likely to be a very difficult situation that causes distress.

"Even though one can be on a month-to-month contract, it’s extremely rare to even get any form of medical aid plan from the company that they’re working for. At this very moment, a good 60 to 70% of our actors in the country (especially the younger ones) don’t have medical aid or a funeral plan,” he said.

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Siswana has worked with some of the country’s top names and assisted them in navigating the challenges they faced. In the work that he has done, Siswana has found that one of the main causes of actors’ mental health issues is uncertainty.

“Their jobs in the industry as a whole are erratic. Things can change in a heartbeat – an artist can go from having a job to not working for the next six months, and also, though not all the time, their uncertain jobs or “gigs” rely on how well the audience receives them (even though that’s mostly not on them, but based on the storyline that writers have written you to play).”

"Other causes of mental health issues experienced by those in the limelight are imposter syndrome, unstable or low income, undiagnosed mental illnesses, limited opportunities, a rapidly changing landscape that requires new skills, comparison and pressure from self, family and community.

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“All these factors and having to consistently compete for roles while trying to be consistent in looking like a Hollywood star to be able to maintain intrigue with the general populous takes its toll on you,” he said.

Echoing his sentiments is radio & TV celebrity psychologist Charissa Bloomberg, who said celebrities are under so much pressure.

“They deal with the pressure of society, fame and of social media because their lives are being scrutinised and they have to put on a brave face.

"It’s time to put the state of our artists’ mental health on the agenda, Take the stigma out of mental health, create awareness, signs to look out for and to empower oneself to take action. Make use of free service, get a coach or mentor, or buddy system. Throughout the year and not only in mental health awareness week.”

According to Bloomberg, people who have worked in the arts throughout history have dealt with poverty, persecution, social alienation, psychological trauma, substance abuse, high stress and other such environmental factors that are associated with developing and perhaps causing mental illness.

“Mental health problems often go untreated, with as many as one in four of us suffering from them each year. Often it’s difficult to tell when our mental health is in jeopardy. In most cases, it’s the stigma that prevents people from speaking out or seeking support. This discrimination toward mental health issues can be found across Africa,” she said.

Artists of varied disciplines are using their skills and creativity to address mental health issues and to help others heal through the power of art and expression.

Women are actually more likely to try to kill themselves – three to four times more likely. But men are more likely to die from it (mental illness). But men may be less likely to admit when they feel vulnerable, whether to themselves, friends, or a GP.

“Men seek help for mental health less often,” suicide prevention expert Jill Harkavy-Friedman says.

“It’s not that men don’t have the same issues as women – dangerously, rather than seeking help through established channels, some men may attempt to 'self-medicate'.”

On how to deal with issues of mental health, Bloomberg stresses that it is important to empower everyone to look out for the signs.

“People in the entertainment industry should get a coach or a mentor, someone they can check in with. A buddy system is also important. We’ve got to be more vulnerable and be able to say, “I’m struggling” and it has to be throughout the year, not just during Mental Health Awareness Month in October,” she said.

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