South African men are more likely to commit suicide than women. In fact, by 2016, four times more men died by of suicide than women.
The causes are complex, ranging from the lack of mental care awareness in men, to entrenched cultural beliefs about mental health and the lethal methods men choose to commit suicide.
The good news is that men like Yaw Dwomoh, MD of Idea Hive, are breaking the taboo of talking about mental health to bring about a paradigm shift.
Life is stressful. We are bombarded with messages that breed comparison, anxiety and pressure. Add to that the stress of running a business in a country where the economy seems to be teetering on the brink of its own depressive state daily, and you have a lethal cocktail detrimental to even the strongest person’s mental constitution.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) recently found that close to 800 000 people die because of suicide every year. Around 804 000 suicides occurred worldwide in 2012, representing a suicide rate of 11.4 per 100 000 people — 15.0 for males and 8.0 for females. In 2016 South African male suicide stats were 21.7 per 100 000 compared to 5.1 for women.
Mental illnesses like depression, anxiety disorders, bipolar disorder and psychosis, affect both men and women, but the prevalence in men is often lower than in women. However, studies show that it could be due to men just being more hesitant to seek treatment than women. Hence the worrying suicide statistics that reveal the outcome of their reluctance to seek help.
We sat down with Yaw Dwomoh, MD and founder of Idea Hive, a specialist brand storytelling agency. Yaw is an MBA graduate from the Business School of the Netherlands, and a candidate in Mphil Marketing. He has been a panellist at Africa Tourism Partners – inspiring Pan-African sustainable travel and tourism development through innovative leadership, as well as ASFW 2018. He is also a thought leader contributor for SME South Africa.
After a period of persistent stress and anxiety recently spiralled out of control, the father of two was urged to get treatment after trying to “go it alone” for two years.
“As an entrepreneur, the pressure to sustain and grow your business is compounded by the responsibility you feel towards your family, your employees and their families, your suppliers, your clients – it becomes a heavy load,” he says. “If you are an African man it is even more of a taboo to talk about anything that could be perceived as a weakness. Your value is tied to your strength and your ability to provide.”
“Indoda ayikhali” is a common expression equivalent to “cowboys don’t cry” and it tells men, who bear the brunt of black tax, that they can’t suffer openly. The fact that it is seen as a flaw, means that specifically black men don’t seek help, an issue brought to the fore when rapper HHP died last year when his battle with depression ended in suicide.
Dwomoh says that the first signs that he was experiencing more than a passing bout of anxiety or depression, was excessive irritability, anger outbursts, lack of concentration, irrational fears and suicidal thoughts. A visit to the doctor confirmed that he suffered from depression and anxiety disorder, but he was determined to “exercise it off.”
“Needless to say, I failed. The mood swings, drastic “lows”, lack of sleep and concentration and mounting mental pressure meant I was struggling to focus at work. I thought I was just undisciplined and tried harder to stick to my rigid work ethic and routines and for a while it worked,” he says.
Not everyone experiences the same symptoms. Some men may experience tiredness and loss of interest in work, family, or hobbies. Some mental health symptoms may appear to be physical issues. It could be a racing heart, tightening chest, persistent headaches, or digestive issues. Many men may treat physical symptoms without looking at emotional symptoms. Some may turn to drugs or alcohol to alleviate the emotional pain.
As a business owner, Yaw was worried about how he would be perceived, so for 19 months, he kept his diagnosis from his family, kids, colleagues and business associates.
“I was afraid to talk about it, firstly because it may be misconstrued as a lack of competency and secondly due to the shame attached to it in my culture.”
He finally sought help when the intensity of his symptoms peaked and he could no longer perform at optimum, triggering suicidal thoughts and persistent lack of self-worth.
“My road to healing has had many facets. I sought medical treatment, but probably more importantly, started speaking openly about the condition to my family, kids, associates and colleagues. I incorporate regular exercise, maintain a good diet, stick to my faith practices and try to surround myself with people who have a positive outlook. Studies have shown you only need a 10-minute walk or 30 minutes of stretching to alter your mood.”
What advice does he have for other business leaders, men and specifically black men who struggle with suicidal thoughts, depression and anxiety?
“Just take the first step. Step out, seek help and talk about it to the right people (medical professionals and those how love and support you). Don’t let stigmatisation and fear stop you from taking any of the steps you need to get back to who you were before depression. If you need to, take a break from toxic or non-supportive family or friends while you recover.”
He passionately believes there is hope for others like him. “Mental health problems are real, but help is readily available. But only you can take the first step. There is no shame in suffering from a mental health condition, but if you don’t seek help, it could cost you your business, your family or even your life.”