On the 30th of January, the world woke up to shocking news: Cheslie Kryst, the former Miss USA, was found dead at the age of 30. She died from a fall from a high-rise building in Manhattan’s West Side in New York City. Her death would later be ruled as a suicide.
Following her death, her close friends, including former Miss South Africa and Miss Universe, Zozibini Tunzi, who had shared an apartment with Cheslie just over a year ago, posted heartfelt condolences to a woman who was evidently loved immeasurably. But there were also many people on social media who expressed shock about how someone as successful as Cheslie could have been driven to the point of suicide. I came across many posts listing her numerous achievements, including her two Daytime Emmy Award nominations for outstanding entertainment news program. Other posts expressed confusion at how such an educated young woman, who held a business degree, a law degree and a Master of Business Administration, could have been unable to seek professional help. As I followed the many discussions across various forums, I realised that despite the exponential rise in deaths by suicide globally, there is still a lot of work that needs to be done to educate people on mental health issues.
A recent report by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) paints a deeply concerning picture of suicide in our country. According to the report, an estimated 23 deaths and 460 attempted deaths by suicide occur in South Africa every day. Additionally, 9 percent of all teen deaths in the country are due to suicide – and the number is on the increase. Research also indicates that last year, 30.6 percent of students had contemplated suicide. Worryingly, 57.2 percent of these students, more than half of these students, had gone on to make a suicide plan while 19.1 percent of those who made the plan went on to attempt suicide. It is important to remember that even as they are astounding, these numbers do not reflect the totality of the situation since some suicide attempts and deaths by suicide are not recorded.
In my book, Corridors of Death: The Struggle to Exist in Historically White Institutions, I document the deaths of Black students in South African universities. In nearly all the deaths, students jumped from buildings of their residences and even, inside university campuses. I describe the death of one University of Pretoria students who jumped from the Humanities building in full view of fellow students – a death so gruesome that one of the people I interviewed, a former student leader who witnessed the entire incident, could not continue with the interview owing to the mental distress it provoked. Other students who were interviewed admitted to having battled with suicidal ideation, with some ultimately deciding to drop out of university due to the depths of depression and battles with their mental health.
There are many factors behind the growing rate of suicide among South African youth. According to the deputy director of the SA Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH), Leon de Beer, some contributing factors include: high rates of underlying mental illnesses, bullying, academic pressure and a history of childhood sexual or physical assault or violence. Among Black youth, socio-economic issues are also a major factor. Unemployment, poverty and hunger are driving mainly township and rural youth to suicide. In addition to this, loneliness is also becoming a major factor owing in particular to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and the restrictions that it has brought. Human-beings are social beings who rely on each other. The reality of social distancing, online learning and self-isolation has impacted negatively on people.
The fact of the matter is that there is a mental health pandemic taking place and we are not talking about it nearly as much as we should be. Part of the reason for this is the persistent stigma that is attached to mental illness. Those of us who grew up in townships know too well how people battling with mental illness are alienated and referred to as “amahlanya” – mad people. This labelling and stigma is effectively a form of othering that makes it impossible for us to see mental ill people as fully formed human-beings who need community and support. Furthermore, there is also a myth that certain people are immune to mental illness. As we are seeing with Cheslie, society cannot comprehend that successful people can also battle with debilitating mental illness. I know this too well because for many years, I too secretly battled clinical depression and severe generalised anxiety disorder. Even with a medical diagnosis, my family and friends could still not make sense of my illness because I was a brilliant straight A student who had a lot going on for her. It took being admitted to Akeso, a psychiatric hospital in Parktown, for them to finally understand that I was gravely ill.
Society needs to be more supportive of young people battling mental illness. Government and the private sector need to commit resources to the provision of counselling and other services. We need to have counselling centres built in our townships and rural areas so that young people don’t ever think there is no help available and therefore, no option but to die by suicide. We also need to help ourselves and our friends by looking out for signs of depression in them and advising them to seek help immediately. Some of these signs include: talking about dying, self-harm, being withdrawn and irritable, feelings of hopelessness, low self-esteem, change in sleep patterns and disinterest in the motions of daily life.
Should you be a person suffering from suicidal thoughts, or are the loved one of a suicidal person, there are resources and help readily available for you. You may call the SADAG Suicide Crisis Line on 0800 567 567, or SMS 31393. These numbers are free and counselling is available in all 11 official languages.
*Malaika is a Geographer/Urban Planner and bestselling author. Her latest book, Corridors of Death: The Struggle to Exist in Historically White Institutions, is available in bookstores nationwide.
Read another writer’s article here on You can’t pray depression away
Tell us: do you agree that we are in a mental health pandemic?