Onke Mazibuko on writing, teen suicide, being a black psychologist and the therapeutic journey

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It’s one of the coolest times of being a teenager.

South Africa is a young democracy – four years old, to be precise – and still leading the vision of being a rainbow nation.

The project of racial integration is tinged with all the bright tints of hope that Mandela’s presidency has brought to South Africa, and teenagers are plugging into American pop culture in a way unlike previous generations.

Bokang, protagonist of Onke Mazibuko in The second versethat’s what the township kids would call um-rapper.

Rebellious and misunderstood like most teenagers of all ages, he inhabits two different worlds.

In one, he attends a prestigious all-boys school (read mostly white people) where he’s too black to be one of them. Her family lives in the suburbs, but they can barely afford the mortgage, property taxes, and taxes, nor can they really afford Bokang’s school fees. Things are so dire financially that it seems they won’t even be able to pay the bill for Bokang’s traditional Xhosa initiation ceremony into manhood.

But, even though he is too black for the white environments he finds himself in most of the time, when Bokang finds himself interacting with his black peers and relatives, he is considered too white.

All hell breaks loose when he writes an essay about suicide, as adults see it as Bokang’s cry for help. He doesn’t see it that way, however.

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Although Bokang’s story seems anachronistic to those who did not grow up in the days of VCRs, walkmans and M-Net set-top boxes, it is now more relevant than ever to many teenagers in an age when terms such as “triggered”, “panic attack”, “anxious” and “depressed” are thrown almost without thinking.

The language we use to talk about mental health and the way these terms have become common expressions used in everyday speech is a good thing and a bad thing, says Onke. It makes us aware of mental health issues, but sometimes using the terms in a derogatory way can undermine the seriousness of the problem.

Speaking to Drum about his journey to becoming an author, the psychologist admits that The second verse is almost autobiographical.

“It’s a coming-of-age story,” says the University of Pretoria creative writing PhD candidate, sharing that when he put pen to paper he was nearing his forties and had started wondering about his experiences as a young man. .

Fiction has become a powerful means of introspection.

“The book is based in the 90s and is about a 90s teenager. It raised the question of whether I think I was depressed when I was a teenager.

“Now, as a psychologist, if I look back and understand the symptoms, I can definitely say yes, I was depressed.

“But at the time I didn’t know that because it didn’t seem to be something available. So I can definitely say that people are more aware of those terms now. When people say ‘depression and anxiety’, they are aware of this: “Oh, I can be anxious”, “I can be depressed”.

“Most people with depression are not suicidal, but most suicidal people are depressed,” said the South African Psychiatric Society (SASOP) in a press release earlier this month, citing data from the World Health Organization (WHO) that ranks depression as the third most serious disease in adolescents, worldwide.

Statistics from South Africa paint a shocking picture: 9% of adolescent deaths are due to suicide, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), while internationally the fourth leading cause of 15 to 29 year olds is suicide says the WHO.

“Patterns of death among 15-24 year olds reflect the underlying risk profiles of age groups, with a shift from childhood infectious diseases to accidents and injuries, self-harm and interpersonal violence ( in 15 to 29 year olds) (one-year range),” the WHO warns.

While alarming, these statistics come as no shock to Onke who says most of his individual therapy is with teenagers while he also works with schools, developing leadership skills in young people and training teachers on health issues. mental.

In the first two years of the pandemic, statistics of teenage depression and suicide appeared to increase, a trend that could be attributed to greater awareness and help-seeking behaviors and therefore more data available.

These startling numbers were another reason Onke wanted to write Bokang’s story.

The protagonist’s struggles relate to many teens today, especially males.

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Onke made the decision in 2021 to go into private practice because he saw more people seek therapy during the pandemic, while writing also clamored for his attention.

Asked if the research that suggests more women engage in mental health help-seeking behaviors than men paints an accurate picture, Onke says the research is likely flawed in some ways. .

“It’s because of what society says about expected male roles and expected female roles that skew research,” says the therapist who has been practicing for 13 years.

But comparing the demographics of his patients a decade ago to today, there are more men willing to try psychotherapy, Onke says. But they aren’t a part of their lives in the same way that women tend to be.

“I can say with certainty as a black therapist that the majority of clients who come to see me – whether male or female, young or old – say this is precisely what they have been looking for.”

So they would have either experienced other therapists and then said “no, it doesn’t work”, they want a different experience. Or they’ve never been in therapy before, and they think, “The person who would work for me is this black therapist.”

“I find it interesting, however, that the majority of my clients are still women. I notice that fewer men are coming forward saying they want to be part of the therapy journey. I still feel like even now there are fewer men going beyond 10 sessions. Most of them will come in, take a look; less than five sessions later, they’re out, because maybe there’s still that pressure men put on themselves so that “I can figure it out myself”.

“So I feel it with myself as a therapist.

“I don’t know if men have become comfortable with building a long-term relationship with a therapist in the same way that I notice with women. Women will make therapy a part of their life in the sense that “my therapist helps me with that. I will keep going back, even if I get 30 sessions.

“So even though there are more men coming, they don’t stay as long as women tend to, because they have this thing, they just want to listen. And then, as soon as you’ve helped them gain some awareness, they want to start facing themselves again.

“They don’t want to say, ‘Okay, you helped me with that, what if you helped me with that – let’s move on because that really helped me.’ And maybe it’s also because of the way society conditions men to handle things.

The patients he has seen beyond 20 sessions tend to be younger – under 30 years old.

“I see in the younger generation of men, more of a willingness to engage in this stuff. And they don’t wait for things to go wrong. They don’t wait for things to fall apart to say, “I need to go to therapy.

“Older men, definitely, they wait until they don’t know what else to do, things have fallen apart and therapy is a last resort.”

The Second Verse by Onke Mazibuko (published by Penguin Random House South Africa) is available at takealot.com for R320.

Acquire help!

Are you struggling with your mental health?

You can call SADAG for help for yourself or on behalf of a loved one, colleague or friend. Qualified counselors are there to help and direct you to local counsellors, facilities and support groups.

Call 0800 21 22 23 (8 a.m. to 8 p.m.) or 0800 12 13 14 (8 p.m. to 8 a.m.). You can also send an SMS to 31393.

If you are looking for a medical aid contract therapist near you, visit routetherapy.com.

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