“My mental health has been on life support for a while now. Thanks to those who call. Text. Visit. Speak to me. May we always remember, may we never forget. You may have added a few hours, months or days to my time here. But you know life-support is expensive right? Thanks for trying. Amen.”
The poet who wrote the words above later wrote another post the following day apologizing in advance to the person who would find his body. He then went to his dorm room at the university and drank two bottles of an insecticide called Sniper and then died.
His suicide proved divisive. People took to his wall to offer condolences for a battle bravely fought but tragically lost against depression. Lots more people took to his Facebook and berated him for ending his life. He was threatened with hell-fire and damnation. People who claim to know God’s will wrote on his Facebook that he will never know peace, that his soul is destined to wonder aimlessly away from God for all of eternity. Others went further and mocked his depression as self-indulgent weakness, an affliction that is un-African, that is born of Eurocentrism. They accused the dead poet of being ungrateful, of seeking attention. They listed all his accomplishments, stating that because he had been a high achieving academic, that because he was a published poet and an editor of the university’s literary magazine, that all of that should have filled him with hope, and kept his suicide ideation at bay. They claimed that the suicide was a bratty move, that he was blessed, that there were others dealing with poverty who kept living while he – a privileged poet – willfully chose death. There seemed to be a lot of judgement and very little compassion and understanding of depression as an illness with a bio-chemical cause.
There is a great stigma that surrounds mental health. People speak of depression only when sufferers succumb to the illness by successfully committing suicide. They then take to social networks with the one liner “depression is real”. In most cases unsuccessful suicide attempts are seen as dramatic, self-indulgent attention-seeking. Therapy is considered a pastime of middle-class white women who do yoga. When you are black and depressed you are expected to deal with your illness by counting your blessings and being grateful, because how dare you complain about not having shoes in a community where some do not have feet?
Reading through the poet’s final Facebook post is harrowing. The amount of ignorance about mental health issues is jaw-dropping. There is a feeling that sustained sadness without an outside cause is silly, that those who claim to have such are imagining the sadness. People throw around glib statements like, “Pull yourself together”. If depression was asthma people would say, “Don’t be silly, there is so much air around, inhale it, it is everywhere, what do you mean that you cannot breathe.” But they do not say this though for asthma; no one is judged weak for needing an inhaler. With depression things are very different. There is a great stigma that surrounds the illness.
I have suffered from depression since I was thirteen. This is when I had my first suicide attempt. I told no one of this. There was no language to express the gnawing sadness that permeated everything. I could not explain my loss of appetite for life, my lack of interest in everything I had found joyful before.
As an adult I have come to learn that depression can be caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain. That the absence of a hormone called serotonin can result in my inability to experience joy. The most important thing I have learned about my depression is the fact that it is manageable. That there are medications which help you cope by balancing the serotonin in your mind. I am on fluoxetine, a drug that saves my life, a drug that keeps me from dying by my own hand because of the hopelessness. A month’s supply of my fluoxetine is just R70. This drug helps me in immeasurable ways. I credit it with saving my life over and over. I am Michelle Myeko, writer and mother, and my medication stands guard over the knives with sharp edges so that I never have to die by my own hand.
Rest in peace poet. Your words made you immortal.
If you feel you are suffering from depression, there is help available on the phone:
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group phone 0800 567 567 8am-8pm
Tell us: how can we challenge the stigma around mental health?
This blog also forms part of our Rights 2.0 – Bridging Divides project. Find out more here.