The recent passing of veteran South African actor Patrick Shai and artist Riky Rick, has sparked a conversation on men’s mental health. Thousands of social media users expressed their shock and sadness and had the country asking if enough is being done to address this worrying trend

Shai, best known for his roles in Soul City and Generations, took his own life after becoming a target of cyberbullying. Things turned sour after the actor challenged Cassper Nyovest to a boxing match on social media, before insulting the rapper’s mother. Although Shai asked for forgiveness, many believe that this online feud contributed to his death in January.

Riky Rick, meanwhile, took to Twitter hours before he was found unresponsive in his Johannesburg home. The 34-year-old had been battling depression for years. 

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), more than 700 000 people die due to suicide every year. In many communities, especially communities of colour, mental health is considered a taboo topic. This is why people don’t end up seeking the help they need and struggle with their experiences.

A 2020 research article by the University of Cambridge (UK) and Adekunle Ajasin University in (Nigeria), states that most Africans are unlikely to report their symptoms or seek help. This is due to certain stigmas surrounding mental health. Phrases like ‘boys don’t cry’ and ‘men do not shed tears’ are commonly associated with African culture. 

Janine Roos, Director at the Mental Health Information Centre, says that a common misconception within communities of colour is that seeking help is not for black people. Society’s expectations, traditional gender roles and pride are some reasons why men shy away from confronting their feelings. The threat of harmful coping mechanisms like drugs and alcohol always looms large. 

Signs To Look Out For

A few signs to look out for to assist a male loved one who may be struggling with mental health issues include:

  • a change in mood
  • a difference in work performance
  • appetite/ weight changes
  • feelings of sadness and hopelessness
  • physical symptoms such as headaches and stomach problems

“Parents can start by telling their sons that it is okay to talk about their emotions,” said Roos.

“Communicate that you are worried about them and help them with lifestyle changes. Encourage a balanced diet, exercise, and good sleep, and limited alcohol use. Try to normalise speaking about mental health struggles in your household and encourage them to not underplay difficult experiences,” she added. 

Living with depression and anxiety

Cape Town based IT technician, Lethabo, was diagnosed with depression and anxiety.

“In 2017, I almost committed suicide. Things became quite hectic and I remember feeling like my life wasn’t worth it. I woke up in the hospital and that’s when I met my first psychiatrist, who gave me medication. He told me that if I ever felt like this again I need to give him a call,” he recalled. 

A year later, Lethabo started to feel suicidal again. He called his psychiatrist who then booked him into a psychiatric clinic.

“He put me back on treatment which helped me feel better.  Ever since then, I’ve learned to live with and understand my condition,” he said. 

Lethabo said that his journey was heavy and that he still has a long way to go. His psychologist told him that once you are diagnosed with depression and anxiety, you should always remember that it’s a lifelong condition. But, it doesn’t mean that there is something wrong with you.

“You need to make sure that you know your triggers and how to deal with them. You’ve got medication to help bring you out of that darkness so that you can be strong enough to deal with it,” said Lethabo. 

He said that not a lot of people understand what depression is.

“If you look at the statistics now, a lot more men are committing suicide. Worldwide, suicide rates are very high. Someone won’t commit suicide for no reason. They probably feel like their lives are worthless or want to run away from something,” he added.

Lethabo hopes that someone might learn from what he went through and realise that talking about mental issues is actually an opportunity to empower yourself.

Boys don’t cry

Laura Makhafola, also known as Laura M, advocates for black men’s mental health. She is also a professional personal development and mental health coach, as well as an inspirational speaker. 

“Black men have been taught from an early age that a man doesn’t cry or show vulnerability. They are told to man up, hence they bottle up things, and those who speak up, are deemed weak and not man enough,” said Makhafola. 

She believes that if enough attention was given to the mental health of men, suicide rates would not be as high as they are.

“Social media is a great platform to address such issues. I just think there aren’t enough campaigns on TV and social media to educate men about mental illnesses and where to get help. As a society, especially women, we need to create safe spaces for men to express their emotions without judgment and when they do so, we shouldn’t use their vulnerability as ammunition,” she said. 

‘Address the issues’

Lex, the founder of the non-profit organisation, Gugulethu Community Services, also hosts a podcast ‘LexStaysLiquid’ which tackles toxic masculinity. The advocate for men’s mental health credits his father for being able to openly speak about issues. 

“His guidance as a man as well as being a very present father, allowed me to make the decisions I made in becoming my own man,” said Lex.

Lex has witnessed various forms of women abuse among his friends and extended family. He has also been abused by former female partners and believes that relationships should not be about forceful nature.

“That could be your mum, your aunt, granny or sister being on the receiving end of that abuse. I believe that both sexes should be playing a part in addressing these issues,” said Lex. 

Doing his bit

Energetic trauma, grief, and spiritual healing, as well as creating a sense of togetherness, are some of the solutions Lex has come up with to help men address their struggles. 

“I decided to create a podcast so that I could speak my mind and invite other men, who I admire, and have a conversation with them,” he explained. 

Lex hopes to expand his podcast into a free online program to assist other men struggling with their mental health.

Along with his podcast, Lex also runs various campaigns to raise funds for community workshops centred on men’s mental health and breaking the stigma around it. He is also working towards hosting seminars at various community centres, churches, and juvenile detention centres – anywhere where he can get his message across.

Lex added: I’m really passionate about doing grassroot things.  There is a lack of attention being given to mental health in schools. Not being able to express your emotions when you’re a young boy leads to grown men taking out their frustrations on women or taking part in crime and using drugs.” 

‘A woman’s problem’

Malose Langa – Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) – said men are told from a very young age that emotions are a woman’s problem.

The dying of men emotionally does not start when they are adults but when they are young. There is a difference in how a boy child and a girl child are treated. It becomes easy to say ‘it’s a man’s problem, but in my view, it is a societal problem,” said Langa.

He believes that we need to let boys be human beings. ‘A change needs to happen in churches, playgrounds and the messages we give to boys and girls.’

‘The issues of manhood cannot be separated from other issues like race and class. Young black men living in poverty go through so much pain. There’s also the issue of family structure; most black men’s fathers are absent parents. We are all a product of this system and it is continuing from one generation to the next. If you look back at history, you’ll see the same sort of phenomenon among comrades. If you weren’t a comrade, you were considered a sissy. Fast forward to today, and you see men having the pressure of acting like a ‘real kasi boy’ or ‘inja’ (big dog/ top dog),” Langa explained. 

Male behaviour

Langa mentioned that young men in the townships feel they have to behave recklessly or aggressively to be considered a man.

“Our prisons are full and if you do research, you will find that there is a strong link between violent behaviour and unresolved mental health issues.

He has also noticed that there are no real physical spaces for men of colour in poor communities to express their anxiety or how they feel.

“If I’m living in Alex, where do I go? There are guys staying in KwaMashu or Soweto; in reality, the services are not there. There are people who are not aware of organisations who can help them or need more than telephonic help,” he said. 

Langa is working on a report which showed that between 85 and 90% of psychologists in the country are females. This explains why the majority of men are reluctant to seek help. 

“Are the mental health services being provided men orientated? And do they recognise that the mental health struggles of young black men are quite elite? It becomes quite depressing to see this matter just go around in circles with not much progress. It’s quite sad to me that a death has to occur for people to pay more attention to men’s mental health struggles,” said Langa. 

You are not alone

If you are having suicidal thoughts, know someone who may be struggling with mental health issues, or are looking for information, you can contact The Mental Health Information Centre (+27 21 938-9229), or SADAG’s 24 hour Suicide Crisis Helpline (0800 567 567). You can also tune in to the LexStaysLiquid podcast on Anchor and donate to his Mental Health/Toxic Masculinity Campaign here. – Health-e News