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Samke Ngcobo’s well on her way to changing the mental health narrative in SA

If the last two years have taught us anything, it’s the importance of taking care of your mental health … something close to Samke Ngcobo’s heart.

Medical doctor, keynote speaker, author and philanthropist – when it comes to changing the mental health narrative in South Africa, is there anything Samke Ngcobo can’t do? Seeing that it is Mental Health Awareness Month in South Africa, we spoke to one of the most prolific mental health advocates in the country.

If there is one thing we have learned over the last two years, it’s the importance of mental health. Being cooped up in lockdown, socially isolated from friends and family, and having a ‘new normal’ forced upon us has taken its toll – and those are just the mental health difficulties that everyone faces. Many of us have had to fight additional mental health battles, and Samke is no exception.

‘My bipolar diagnosis came at the age of 14 and my journey with it has evolved, from being one of struggle and shame to one of triumph and activism. I have been subjected to stigma from a cultural perspective as I was deemed bewitched and also from a religious perspective where I was deemed to be demon-possessed. This stage of my illness led to shame and resentment of the illness. I also went through a stage of denial as I could not connect with the reality of a mentally ill individual so I often defaulted on my medication. My other struggle was related to the side effects of my medication. I have finally arrived at a place of acceptance and have empowered myself by being a student of myself and my illness. I feel a responsibility to be vocal about this topic,’ Samke says.

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Mental health continues to be stigmatised, although huge strides have been made in recent years. ‘I believe that stigma has improved around mental health in the last decade as more robust platforms have been created and people are more vocal about mental health and candid about the reality of mental health issues. I believe that the presence of Covid-19 has played a significant role in facilitating the urgency of mental health advocacy and support.’

Mental health advocacy is a key concern for Samke, who founded an NPO called Sisters for Mental Health (sistersformentalhealth.co.za). ‘I saw the need to provide a safe space and platform to provide mental health education and support. The organisation seeks to collaborate with other mental health organisations in order to provide mental health resources more easily. I believe that the best storyteller about mental health struggles is one who is living with it.’

Samke shares her experiences (and public speaking talent) through her motivational speaking. ‘It’s one of my passions as I get to connect and authentically relate with my audience. The platforms enable me to visibly empower my audience through my confidence to be brave by being vulnerable. I enjoy connecting about our shared humanness.’

Her aim is to grow her public speaking in the corporate sector as well as her community … and she isn’t afraid to dream big either! ‘I dream of a television talk show which is focused on mental health awareness and advocacy. I’m currently hosting Mindful Discussions on Woman Radio so my dream is not too out of reach!’

Samke also shares her insights in her book, Reflections of a Convoluted Mind: A Journey with My Mental Illness. ‘This is my vulnerable and brave offering where I narrate my story related to experiencing the symptoms of my illness, my experience of stigma and my life as a doctor who is also a mentally ill patient. My book is sold online on Amazon and in paperback at Exclusive Books, Book Circle Capital and Protea Books.’

October is also garden month, and you can often find Samke in the garden or on a hike. ‘I love hiking and meeting with friends on weekends. I believe that being outdoors is important for my mental well-being. Being one with nature is something that I find soothing and refreshing. It is an authentic environment which I find relaxing.’

Details: If you’d like to keep up with Samke’s journey, follow her on Instagram @_vocalmentality.

How else can we support our mental health? Samke shares her top tips:

  • Identify your triggers which you believe pose a threat to your mental health.
  • Set boundaries in your relationships and deal with toxic connections.
  • Prioritise yourself by ensuring that you make time for yourself daily to reflect on the day gone by and to be more self-aware and mindful.
  • Manage your exposure to technology, especially social media.
  • Most importantly, own your reality and don’t be ashamed about your illness.
  • Empower yourself as much as possible with knowledge and connecting with people who are supportive of you and embrace you holistically.

Text: Tayla Blaire. Photographer: Nicole Moore. Details: nicolemoorephotography.co.za. Location: Beechwood Gardens. Details: beechwoodgardens.co.za

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