Lost in the conversation of the fake sign language interpreter story at the Nelson Mandela memorial last week is the fact that the butt of all jokes and internet memes is in fact mentally ill. Most reports in the media have focused on his criminal history, with the latest making the rounds that he once either tried to, or managed to murder two people. Then there’s also the story about him being accused of rape at one point.
But you get the point, as usual, media outlets continue to be fascinated with the idea of a violent criminal having the opportunity to be within arms length of President Barack Obama. What is tragic, in my opinion, is how little many are empathetic towards the mental health of Thamsanqa Jantjie. Not that anyone reading this may care, but as bad as South Africa’s mental health system is currently, it’s good to see that he’s getting help.
This from Al Jazeera:
The sign language interpreter at Nelson Mandela’s memorial, who said he suffered a schizophrenic episode during the service after being labelled a fraud, has been admitted to a psychiatric hospital, South African media reported.
Thamsanqa Jantjie sparked outrage with his performance at last week’s event, with sign language experts saying his translations of the eulogies, including those by US President Barack Obama and Mandela’s grandchildren, amounted to little more than “flapping his arms around” and “just making funny gestures”.
On Thursday the Star newspaper said Jantjie’s wife Siziwe had taken her husband for a check-up at a psychiatric hospital near Johannesburg on Tuesday, which suggested he be admitted immediately.
“The past few days have been hard. We have been supportive because he might have had a breakdown,” she was quoted as saying.
Jantjie had been scheduled for a check-up at the Sterkfontein Psychiatric Hospital in Krugersdorp, west of Johannesburg, on December 10.
But the appointment was moved after he was offered the job to sign at the memorial which took place the same day, the newspaper reported.
Jantjie has claimed that he is a qualified signer but that his performance was down to a sudden attack of schizophrenia, for which he takes medication.
“I saw angels falling on the stadium. I heard voices and lost concentration,” he has said.
Local media have since reported that he was part of a mob that burnt two people to death 10 years ago, allegations he has denied, and that he had also faced rape, kidnapping and theft charges.
Mandela’s memorial was attended by nearly 100 sitting and former heads of state or government. The government apologised to the deaf community following the scandal.
In recent media interviews, Jantjie has come across as incoherent.
In his home province of Free State, local media have accused Jantjie of impersonating a lawyer and a traditional healer, though he has not commented on those claims.
Prior to this latest development, a South African deputy minister explained that the company who hired the sign language interpreter has “vanished into thin air.” Thankfully, however, there’s at least one institution available to tend to the needs of Thamsanqa Jantjie and other like him. Because according to Think Progress, when it comes to mental health care in South Africa there’s a lot to be desired.
There is no official mental health policy in South Africa. The country drafted a set of policies in this area in 1997, but they weren’t officially put into practice, and mental health services remain decentralized and underfunded throughout the country’s provinces. Although lawmakers passed a relatively progressive Mental Health Care Act in 2002, it’s not necessarily funded or enforced in the absence of this official policy.
That’s created an environment in which there’s a huge need for this type of medical care that’s largely going unmet. It’s estimated that one in five people in South Africa struggles with mental health issues, but nearly 75 percent of them aren’t getting the treatment they need. Just 15 percent of South Africans can afford private sector health care, but there are big shortages in the public health sector — there are only 18 beds in mental health facilities for every 100,000 people, and just one percent of them are specifically reserved for minors.
Those statistics may even be relatively optimistic, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), because many people don’t realize they have mental health issues in the first place. Mental health stigma is yet another stumbling block to connecting South Africans with the treatment they need.
“In Zulu, there is not even a word for ‘depression’ — it’s basically not deemed a real illness in the African culture,” SADAG’s operations director, Cassey Chambers, explained in an interview in October. “As a result, sufferers are afraid of being discriminated against, disowned by their families or even fired from work, should they admit to having a problem. There is still the perception that someone with a mental illness is crazy, dangerous or weak. Because there is often an absence of physical symptoms with mental illness, it is considered ‘not real,’ a figment of the imagination.”
While we may find comic relief at the expense of a mentally ill man, it’s important to note that there are many like him here in the United States in need of care. Unfortunately, for many like him, the only resource for mental health care are the many overcrowded jail cells across the country.
Here in the United States, gaps in the mental health care system — including a dwindling number of available beds in psychiatric hospitals — prevent some people from receiving the treatment they need, sometimes withtragic consequences. States have been slashing funding for these services for years, a dynamic that’s pushed a growing number of mentally ill Americans into the criminal justice system. Nearly half of psychiatrists don’t accept private insurance, and many Americanssimply cannot afford mental health treatment.
Watch the following report: