Breaking the stigma around psychiatric disability

The Cape Mental Health team that worked on the “In My Own Words” campaign.

It’s important to raise public awareness about psychiatric disability so that everyone who is affected by one will not feel isolated, says Lorna Raatz, a long-time client of Cape Mental Health.

The non-profit organisation held an awareness campaign, “In My Own Words” at the Observatory Recreation Hall, on Thursday July 21, and about 80 of its clients were there to share stories, poetry and art that reflected their own experiences with psychiatric disability.

The South African Federation for Mental Health and the Observatory-based Cape Mental Health mark July as Psychosocial Disability Awareness Month.

René Minnies, who manages Cape Mental Health’s psychosocial rehabilitation programme, says a psychiatric disability affects how someone lives, thinks and works, but with counselling, support and the correct medication they are able to work and live their lives.

The problem is that those with a psychiatric disability – whether it be bipolar mood disorder, depression, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress disorder or any number of other conditions – also usually have to deal with the stigma that surrounds it.

“We want to help take away the labels, to ensure that clients have the right to work, the right to associate and the right to dignity,” says Ms Minnies.

Ms Minnies say the campaign is about amplifying the voices of those with psychiatric disability. “This is a safe space for service users to express themselves in storytelling, poetry and art.”

Ms Raatz, 57, who stays at a Cape Mental Health group home in Observatory, says she first started battling depression from the age of 16 after her mother died.

“Depression took over at that time, my concentration levels were not good and I felt isolated at the time.”

Ms Raatz saw a psychiatrist, but her continuing battle with depression made it hard for her to hold down a job.

In 2011, she joined Fountain House, a programme offered by Cape Mental Health. “It was a positive experience, I met people with similar conditions, and the organisation treated us as normal people.”

Ms Raatz says she learnt social skills and was even part of the administrative group of the organisation.

She feels it’s important to break down the stigma around psychiatric disability. “We are not our illness; we are capable and are able to work.”

She enjoys knitting, reading and going out for coffee with her friends in her spare time.

Another Cape Mental Health client, Lucy Namakoko, 38, says she first experienced depression when she was 21. “I joined Fountain House in 2011, and they have helped me with life skills and taught me how to cope with my depression.”

Ms Namakoko now does advocacy work at the Cape Consumer Advocacy Body, which lobbies government to give more support to people with mental illness.

Just because someone has a mental illness doesn’t mean that can’t function in society, says Ms Namakoko.

“It means that we would deal with challenges more differently than others, though we would like to be treated like everyone else.”

Visit capementalhealth.co.za, call Barbara Meyer at 082 897 8176 or 061 043 1298 or email barbara.meyer@cmh.org.za to find out more about Cape Mental Health.

Long-time Cape Mental Health client Lorna Raatz with an illustration she did for the “In My Own Words” campaign.