“Depression was a white people’s illness”

“Depression was a white people’s illness”

When a doctor told Bandile Maseko* he was suffering from depression, Maseko refused to believe it. Then things went from bad to worse.

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Three years ago, Maseko noticed changes in his mood. He became increasingly aggressive and also started experiencing back pains and headaches. Doctors eventually diagnosed him with depression.

“I believed I didn’t have depression, and that depression was a white people’s illness,” he said. “I thought that black people didn’t suffer from such an illness.”

It is estimated that about a quarter of all people will develop some form of mental illness in their lifetimes. Globally, depression is the most commonly diagnosed mental illness with an estimated 350 million people currently battling the illness, according to the World Health Organisation.

While data on the prevalence of depression in South Africa is limited, a 2009 study found that about ten percent of those surveyed had experienced depression in their lifetimes. While depression is a common illness, there remains a lack of awareness about this and many other mental illnesses – as well as common misconceptions about who gets depressed and why.

To this day, Maseko’s mother continues to discount doctors’ diagnosis and believes her son is possessed by an evil spirit.

Maseko initially refused to accept he was depressed. When the symptoms got worse he found comfort in alcohol, which in turn made him more aggressive and even violent. He also started having sex with different partners.

Getting out of bed in the morning became difficult, and Maseko ended up resigning from his job.

“It got harder for me to work,” he told OurHealth. “I couldn’t concentrate and I wasn’t delivering.”

“I didn’t understand what was happening to me,” he added. “It was not normal.”

Symptoms like aggression, a loss of interest in regular activities, an inability to concentrate and even headaches and muscle pains are common among people suffering from depression. Some people suffering from depression may also be diagnosed with bipolar disorder in which people experience bouts of mania marked by excessive behaviours such as an increase in sex drive and partners.

In 2012, Maseko went back to the doctor and started treatment. What began as a six-month course of treatment eventually became a prescription for life-long drugs to treat his mental illness. While Maseko struggled to adhere to treatment he also began to have regular sessions with a psychologist, which he said helped.

Without health insurance, he has been forced to stop his visits to the psychologist, which can cost about R750 per hour in the private sector.

According to WHO, fewer than half of those suffering from depression receive treatment, because of lack of resources and lack of trained health care providers. In South Africa, there is just one psychologist for every 312,000 people in the country.

South Africa spends about R472 million on mental health but despite this, only about 25 percent of those in need receive treatment. To increase access to counselling and other services, the government has introduced new policies including the introduction of district-based mental health services.