According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) mental health is a “state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Mental health here is described not only as a “health” issue but a social device for rationality and productivity. The WHO emphasizes that mental health difficulties have an impact for society as a whole and as a result they are “a major challenge to global development.” According to the institution, there is not a single group insusceptible to mental disorders even though the risk is higher among the poor, the unemployed, persons with low education, and victims of violence, women, the neglected elderly and other marginalized groups.
I sat down with Ernest Nkomotje to discuss this matter particularly for the reason that he has just released a book on mental health. Ernest is a final year BA Politics, Philosophy and Economics student at the University of Johannesburg and the author of a mental health book titled A MIND ASTRAY.
We began by discussing the process of writing this book. He started by pointing out that the lack of theoretical framework for this discourse made it difficult for him to draw a premise and begin a conversation within his work. Ernest spent a lot of time doing research and it took him six months to write his book. He acknowledged the help he received from organisations within Black Christianity such as The Mental Health and Renewal program, which is a program designed by a psychologist within the Adventist Church. Their work is to educate people about issues of mental health within the territory of Black believers. He also recognizes Mandla Msibi, a CEO of African Tenet and a Black publisher and Pan Adventist, and many others who supported him during the writing and making of his book which was launched on the 25th of March 2017.
I then asked Mr. Nkomotje to explain the inspiration behind writing his book. He attributed the inspiration to the interest he has to enhance the notion of decolonization as there is little African literature on the subject and because he has had personal experience with mental health. He writes on the matter from a black or African point of view and contexts; he wants to break stereotypes that “mental health ‘ke boloi’ (It is witch craft) or its things encountered by white people, “I wanted to give answers from our context,” he said during our discussion. He sees mental health as being holistically well and not just a matter of psychological capacities. Ernest also pointed out that mental issue “seem to be a much suppressed conversation” within black communities thus he decided to write about it.
I continued to ask him what he anticipates the reader will gain from the text. He emphasised the augment in the book, in which he “draws a dichotomy between mental issues that can be preternaturally founded, meaning consisting of spiritual element to them, bewitchment even possession and mental issue that are natural meaning those which are induced by neurochemical disequilibrium for example, distortion in neurotransmitters, which make the subject pro to certain depressive psychoneurotic states essential.” Mr. Nkomotje aims to give the reader tools on how to begin to separate between that which is spiritual and that which is natural, “because if the diagnosis is incorrect then the solutions will not work.” He argues that we can “run a risk of being too Eurocentric in our thinking and metaphysical that we begin to neglect the spiritual foundations of beings – that a human being can have a spiritual nature and we black people know that witchcraft is operative in our context.” What he tries to show in the text is how you initiate the separation between that which is neurochemical and what is natural.
I finally asked him to give his view on the government’s neglect of the mental patients that died last year due to them being removed from Life Esidimeni centre.
He sees the government’s actions as careless and irresponsible. According to Ernest “…the belief that they are dealing with a subhuman species grounds the carelessness that’s there… “leave them they are crazy.” The incident is evidence that the government does not take much consideration into these issues. How do we leave in a productive society when the basic human necessities are not taken care of by our leaders? Mental health is a grim issue regarding social order thus any stereotypes need to be broken.