Johannesburg - The of the Life Esidimeni tragedy and the 144 people who died need to be told and not forgotten to change how mental illness is treated in South Africa.
On Thursday, the entire world celebrated the first Mental Health Action Day with a mission to encourage and empower people to take their first actions on mental health.
In commemoration of the day, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), Section27 and the families of the Life Esidimeni victims launched the Life Esidimeni Online Memorial and Advocacy project during a virtual event.
In 2016, 144 people with mental illness lost their lives. They died from neglect and starvation in the hands of those who were supposed to protect them in the public health system.
The Life Esidimeni Online Memorial and Advocacy project is a website and advocacy campaign that tells the story of the tragedy and provides a memorial to those who died.
During the virtual launch, Christine Nxumalo, from the Life Esidimeni Family Committee, said that the committee were very happy to be part of the campaign because the stories of their loved ones needed to be told.
“The website pays tribute to our families. Our loved ones’ names mean the world to us but it’s important for us to tell our stories and to remember who they were to us. We must never forget what happened and never forget how tragically they died,” she said.
Nxumalo lost her sister Virginia Machpelah, who suffered from the early onset of Alzheimer’s. The family suffered a double tragedy when Machpelah’s 21-year-old daughter collapsed and died on the first day of the arbitration proceedings.
“This website is important because we get to help many more families.
“… the aim is to change the way mental health is treated in South Africa,” she said.
The memorial project, led by documentary maker Harriet Perlman, has been in the works for two years.
“The website tried to capture what happened by building a story with words and pictures. Firstly, it’s the story of the loved ones who died in the care of the public system and then it’s the story of the families who are left behind and the loved ones who have died,” Perlman said.
Perlman, who is also working on a feature film about the tragedy, said the team travelled to the homes of the bereaved families to capture a picture of them holding a picture of their deceased family members.
The project includes portraits of Anna Modise and her son Lucky Jeremiah and Maria Colitz and her husband of 40 years Fredrick Colitz.
Sadag’s operations director, Cassey Chambers, said there was also an interactive component in the website to allow people to share their own stories, report issues and seek help on the mental health helplines.
Section27’s head of health rights and lawyer Sasha Stevenson said the organisation was preparing for the July Esidimeni inquest at the North Gauteng High Court in Pretoria.
Stevenson, who will be representing 35 families, said there was a need and desire from the families for individual criminal accountability.
“The inquest is not a criminal trial but it’s a way for the judge to determine the legal cause of death and as well as the circumstances of the deaths,” she said.
The inquest is an opportunity for the judge to review the evidence and determine whether a criminal prosecution should follow