CASE: Depression is normalised for Cape Flats residents. Photo: PICASA

People on the Cape Flats don’t have the time to be depressed.

I made this comment while in a discussion with some of my colleagues during World Mental Health Day last week.

I explained that on the Flats, people are far too busy eking out a living for themselves to spend an hour a week on someone’s couch talking about their problems.

Besides, nobody can afford it.

It wasn’t a comment that I had given any deep thought to before.

I was simply repeating what I had heard a relative say years ago.

We were talking about an acquaintance who had been diagnosed with some or other mental illness.

I remember her making the comment in between dismissive sniggers of incredulity.

In her mind, people with weak constitutions fall prey to mental illness; people with nothing better to do with their time; attention-seekers with no sense of responsibility.

Her view was that we all have to fight the same battles and deal with the same issues.

Some of us just get on with it, while others opt out.

She also believes when people have options, then it’s easy to give in to depression.

For example, if we have a social safety net, like parents who can take care of the kids; or a partner who can easily carry the family; or a trust fund, then depression itself becomes an option.

But if you are the sole breadwinner, whom your family depends on, then mental illness is simply not a consideration.

It’s easy to fall for this theory because it appears plausible anecdotally.

After all, for many people, those are not “real” diseases.

High blood pressure, diabetes and gout - those are diseases! Not depression!

It appeared to me that mental illness only ever seems to strike people with relatively good lives; those who can afford to take some time out and talk about their problems.

Somehow depressed celebrities didn’t make any sense in my world, so I ended up dismissing them as well.

I didn’t often come across ordinary people living ordinary lives, who battle with depression or debilitating anxiety, crippling schizophrenia or extreme OCD.

So I came to the conclusion that these were diseases reserved for the privileged few; people who could afford to put their responsibilities on pause, while their domestic helpers dealt with the distractions of parenting, holding down a job and housekeeping.

But I have since changed my mind.

I now believe that people on the Cape Flats have in fact been living with low levels of depression, anxiety and paranoia for decades.

We are surrounded by it. We don’t notice it, because it has been normalised for us.

And because most of us live hand-to-mouth, the idea of spending R1000 an hour on a kop doctor is something that could worsen our depression.

So we carry on, shrugging off the ever-threatening violence, the deprivation, the dehumanising stress, the political plundering, the daily inequalities that are forced upon us and the collective impotence to do anything about our circumstances.

We are not too busy to be depressed.

We are depressed because we are so busy absorbing the things that depress us.

We are undiagnosed, not immune!