2020 was a hard year in Zimbabwe. When the first lockdown hit, the economy was already worn for wear and many people felt their livelihoods being clinched by the austere measures in the country and the rising difficulty in earning a decent livelihood. Covid-19 caught the world unprepared, but for a little teapot-shaped country bedeviled by decades of socioeconomic challenges trigged by political instabilities, the burden was just too much for the ordinary Zimbabwean.
“Just a few weeks,” everyone told themselves.
As the weeks rolled out into months, people began to question the risk and reality of Covid-19. Social media was awash with false news and many people clinched their hope on this false news as it gave a false sense of security rather than the reality that everyone faced: Covid-19 is real, Covid-19 can kill. As the statistics transitioned from numbers to names, fear began to sweep in homes. However, hunger started to visit and the fear of starvation drove people to defy the lockdown rules and try to sell a few wares to make a meagre living. After all, one can’t skip a meal to save food, for food that isn’t already there when you live from hand to mouth!
As Western reports predicted a grim Africa with Covid-19 ridiculing African healthcare systems and decimating people in their droves, that seemingly wasn’t the case. However, another pandemic began to brew beneath the surface. It wasn’t hunger as most people would think – yes that was there too. A more sinister enemy that attacked the strongest in the community – the young men – was at large, this enemy is called depression and suicidal ideation. A grey cloud of depression swopped in as many young adults and especially men felt the pressures to provide but without any means to do so. Drug misuse, alcoholism, gender-based violence and suicidal rates soared during the lockdown as these young men cried out for help but no one was listening because the world believed if Covid-19 didn’t get them, hunger would.
Life as a young African man is hard, evermore in today’s era where huge drivers and policymakers are trying to emancipate the girl child from systemic oppression. While it is true that the systems in place preferentially favoured men more than women, we tend to forget that racial discrimination superseded all other forms of oppression. The men were only marginally better than women, their human rights were equally abused as women. Their freedom to vote and even get an education were equally stripped away as were those of women.
Yes, the patriarchal system favoured men more than women, however many women now have access to opportunities and the same men that were marginally better than them before independence have now become disadvantaged by the same policies that aim to emancipate women further – alienating them into the fringes of society. These frustrations, toxic masculinity, and other societal pressures are systematically setting up young African men to becoming a high-risk group for depression and suicide.
Stress needs to be contextualised as a study has shown that early exposure to stress in early life such as violence or socioeconomic inequalities can have adverse effects such as depression susceptibility and increased sensitivity to stress in adulthood . A study conducted in South Africa  showed that 80% of deaths by suicide were done by men and a majority of these men were aged between 18 – 24 years of age. It has also been found that poverty related measures such as food security, economic shocks, and unemployment increase the likelihood of depression.
What can we do as an individual?
The presence of mental illness is growing in African communities and the effects of depression are no longer invincible. Dialogue at the community level among peers is crucial to destigmatize mental illness amongst the African community. Depression is not a form of weakness, neither is it a supernatural phenomenon that requires an exorcism or traditional medicinal interventions. We need to treat depression just like any other clinical disease and seek professional help. The brain like any other organ in the body can get sick.
We need to cut our young men a break! Poverty is not a choice, no one has ever woken up and decided to be poor. Africa is changing inequitably as the population grows. Put this into context, between 2000 and 2015 the African population grew by 49% and the continent’s population is expected to double over the next three decades. As the population increases, pressures on young people are increasing as the labour markets are becoming highly competitive and the reality is; most people will fail to realise their life ambitions.
We need to encourage each other and reach out. Colonial systems taught us to compete against each other as this benefited the colonial paymasters at the expense of the workers. We gouged each other’s eyes out only to win mediocre prizes such as “Best Student” and “Employee of the month”, while fostering toxic work environments that do not promote growth. As the world becomes highly competitive, this has led to a breeding ground for depression and other mental health issues.
Let us as a people go back to our African ways of working together. Let us not forget that teeth that work together help each other in chewing food as the Kenyan proverb goes. Collaborations are more prosperous than unhealthy competition. Always remember that a kind word goes a long way but a helping hand is remembered for a lifetime!
- Juma, K., Wekesah, F.M., Kabiru, C.W. and Izugbara, C.O., 2020. Burden, drivers, and impacts of poor mental health in young people of west and Central Africa: implications for research and programming. In West African Youth Challenges and Opportunity Pathways (pp. 233-265). Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.
- Bantjes, J., Tomlinson, M., Weiss, R.E., Yen, P.K., Goldstone, D., Stewart, J., Qondela, T., Rabie, S. and Rotheram-Borus, M.J., 2018. Non-fatal suicidal behaviour, depression and poverty among young men living in low-resource communities in South Africa. BMC public health, 18(1), pp.1-12.