ZM: What made you come out about having bipolar and depression?
Sipho Mazibuko: When you’re hiding something, it really eats you up. It was weighing down on me. So I thought let me release myself from that torture and come out to the world.
ZM: How did the media portray your mental health struggles and how did you handle it?
Sipho Mazibuko: They demonized me for it, gave their own diagnosis of what I suffered from—even saying I was schizophrenic. They told the world I was at Ingutsheni Psychiatric Hospital. It wasn’t easy coming out of hospital with everyone pointing fingers at me that I was in a mental ward. It was awful. Unapologetically coming out took power away from the media because they couldn’t shame me for what I wasn’t ashamed of.
ZM: In 2011 you had a nervous breakdown and were committed Ingutsheni. How do you feel about people having a one-dimensional view of mental illness? In that once you hear the name “Ingutsheni”, people visualize someone crazy. Would you like to deconstruct that stereotype?
Sipho Mazibuko: When people hear you were admitted there, they think you’re mad, eating out of bins and walking around town naked while talking to yourself; yet it’s not like that, it’s a medical condition that can affect anyone whether you’re rich or poor, like HIV or diabetes. People should accept it and stop calling it being “bewitched”, because it’s not witchcraft, it’s something which affects your mind and needs acceptance and professional help.
ZM: On that note, you grew up in a traditional household leaning towards African spirituality. How did they receive your mental health struggles?
Sipho Mazibuko: Unexpectedly, they initially thought it was witchcraft, so they took me to prophets and traditional healers who “exorcised the mental demon” inside me but it didn’t help, it only wasted my money and time. It would’ve been more helpful to take me sooner to go to Ingutsheni.
ZM: On the flipside of the coin—Christianity—have Christian leaders ever tried to “heal” you?
Sipho Mazibuko: Yes, I was once taken to one of these new Pentecostal churches—I won’t mention the name—to pray for me, but it didn’t help. They laid their hands on me, said I was healed and made me throw my medication away, but I became worse, leading to my nervous breakdown.
ZM: When did you start having mental illness? Did anything trigger it?
Sipho Mazibuko: I had a miscarriage in 1996, which gave me post-natal depression, without me realizing what it was. Again, my family took me to traditional healers and prophets. I tried committing suicide by overdosing my depression medication, leading to my first ever admission to Ingutsheni Hospital.
ZM: Regarding suicide, do you think people have a one-dimensional view of what leads to feeling suicidal? For instance, my friend with borderline personality disorder has had multiple suicide attempts, not because she was a “coward” or “attention-seeker”, but because it feels like there’s a child pressing random buttons in her head that dictate her behaviour, aka chemical imbalances.
Sipho Mazibuko: Exactly, that’s what chemical imbalances do, It’s like something just saying: kill yourself. You’ll be unaware that you have a chemical imbalance, things just go wrong, and you don’t know how to escape that situation. It’s like something is heavy, a big rock on your head that you can’t take off and the only option is to kill yourself, and that’s what I tried doing. I couldn’t take the inexplicable, tremendous pain and noise in my head anymore.
ZM: Considering that you were on and off your medication for years, what made you start taking your meds and bounce back from the nervous breakdown?
Sipho Mazibuko: I realized I was going around in circles—getting better, getting worse, getting better… I eventually realized to get better permanently, I had to respect my medication and take it as advised by the doctor. I realized it was my life, and if I let the situation drag me down, I’d eventually disappear into myself and become a mentally ill cabbage. So, I had to fight back, take my medication as directed, do things that occupied my time and made me happy like managing my wedding and picnic venue, Lavinia Gardens, and giving modelling coaching.
ZM: What are your thoughts on the stigma around mental illness? Did it affect your interpersonal relationships?
Sipho Mazibuko: The stigma is too much. People think having mental illness means you’re crazy. Society doesn’t want to talk about it, people shove it under the mattress and don’t want to associate with you. My family couldn’t understand why their mom was sometimes aggressive then sweet and friendly because the issue was hidden. It was a terrible passage in your lives but I’m glad you now know what’s wrong with me, and you’re helping me overcome it by being there for me, cooking, joking and chatting with me. It even caused my divorce because my ex-husband had done his best, and as a man, you get fed up of having a wife doing all those things, ending up in the newspaper for all the wrong reasons. I lost countless friends; even family members dissociated themselves from me, but in the process I’ve gained new friends who accepted me as I am without stigmatizing my condition, which is difficult to find in Zimbabwe without being slandered or gossiped about.
ZM: How can we dismantle this stigma?
Sipho Mazibuko: Society needs to be educated about it, to realise it’s not a curse, it’s like any other medical condition which can be treated and lived with. Whether it’s including it in our curriculum or having workshops. I’ll have bipolar disorder till I die, and that’s okay; as long as I take my medication, I’ll be fine.
ZM: The education aspect is so important because it took me a while before realizing I inherited bipolar disorder from you. I was experiencing these mood changes, being vaguely aware I am depressed, but didn’t have the language to describe it. I only put two and two together when student support on campus was handing out pamphlets about various mental health conditions; as I read the info about bipolar, it clicked, so I went to the psychiatrist and I was right.
Sipho Mazibuko: Exactly. You won’t be knowing what’s happening to you, because sometimes you feel good, other times you’re low, then you’re overexcited for absolutely no reason. You’re so confused about what’s happening until you seek medical attention which diagnoses what you’re enduring.
ZM: What are your thoughts on “toxic positivity”? That is, being depressed and people are like, “don’t be depressed, be happy!” which is like telling a homeless person, “don’t be homeless, go buy a house!” Like, thanks, Karen, I’m cured.
Sipho Mazibuko: (laughs) People shouldn’t judge and assume it can be cured just like that. You should first understand the condition and its modalities before saying, “get well, be strong, you’ll be okay!” People should be empathetic and offer the appropriate help instead of gaslighting you like it has an on/off switch, offering unhelpful suggestions which trivialize our experiences.
ZM: What advice do you have for people suffering from mental illness?
Sipho Mazibuko: they must express their difficulties to a psychologist, who will refer them to a psychiatrist for the medical side of it. If you’re put on medication, please respect and your medication all the time.
ZM: Do you think women are especially impacted by mental health struggles?
Sipho Mazibuko: definitely. We’re the ones mostly abused by men who think we’re sponges that can absorb anything. In the end, we’re under so much pressure to look after our families and husbands, which becomes an excessive burden.
ZM: Any plans on helping other women with this?
Sipho Mazibuko: Yes, I founded an NGO called Mental Voices which will give women a voice about their mental health conditions, an outlet to vent their emotions and get the assistance they need to diagnose their grievances, to live a healthy and full life with mental illness, cope with it and dismantle the stigma.
ZM: End of interview. This is the part where you pay me by making me lunch.
Sipho Mazibuko: (laughs) Nice interview. Way better than those journalists who demonized me!