'You can't be emotional': Civil servants open up on mental health struggles

As part of a wide-ranging look into the state of South Africa's health, Eyewitness News is shining the spotlight on the mental wellbeing of public servants.

FILE: One of the police trainees salute as the South African flag is raised during a graduation parade. Picture: SAPS

JOHANNESBURG - Concerns have been raised about the stigma surrounding mental health and the impact this has on those who share their struggles despite assurances of confidentiality.

As part of a wide-ranging look into the state of South Africa's health, Eyewitness News is shining the spotlight on the mental wellbeing of public servants.

In the South African Police Services, management said it had experts including psychologists, social workers and chaplains who dealt specifically with counselling and therapy for employees.

But bosses also acknowledged that those seeking help sometimes did not get it within the prescribed times because of work demands.

A police officer who struggled with mental health for most of her career until she quit the force spoke to EWN to share her experience.

"It was either the grave or letting go the work that I love," former Lieutenant-Colonel Faith Walaza, who joined the police force when she was in her 20s, said.

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She was exposed to many traumatic incidents, including the torture of xenophobia victims as well as women raped by rebels in conflict-affected areas.

More than 25 years later, Walaza reflected on her career and how it affected her mentally because of what she was exposed to.

She's the first to admit that she carried on with work and neglected herself, fearing she would be overlooked for a promotion if she disclosed her struggles.

“You just have to lie. You usually hide it. You find you are a joke to the members. They will tell you 'today she forgot her tablets from Esidimeni'. You are labelled," she said.

But, Walaza was not alone.

Many of her colleagues were battling with mental health but were just too afraid to speak out lest they were judged, or worse, ill-treated.

The former cop hoped a lot more effort could be put into breaking the stigma around this issue.

Meanwhile, the police's Lineo Ntshiea said the records of everyone who underwent counselling or therapy were kept confidential and this didn’t affect decisions relating to promotions.

At the same time, clinical psychologist Zamo Mbele said it was tragic that ignorance about post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and other conditions still largely prevented people from accessing help.

“That ignorance is deep and runs really deep and is part of the reason that people do not disclose and it’s also part of the reason why people respond without support.”

Mbele said if police officers were better cared for, it would not only improve their mental health but also their performance.

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More than a year after a fire tore through the Bank of Lisbon building, in the Johannesburg CBD, leaving three firefighters dead, their colleagues have spoken out about battling PTSD and how they were leaning on each other.

Some have told EWN they were feeling suicidal and had given up on therapy because they were using their own money. They've now resorted to counselling each other.

Some of the firefighters who were afflicted with PTSD following the fire that claimed the lives of three firefighters came forward to speak up.

"If you cry, others die. You can't be emotional; you won't be able to perform your duties."

More than a decade ago, one firefighter signed up to save lives.

He's encountered many tragedies in his line of duty and on 5 September last year, it hit a little too close to home.
When part of the Bank of Lisbon, which housed several government departments, was engulfed in flames, he and his colleagues rushed out.

The fire would claim the life of one of his close friends, Mduduzi Ndlovu, and those of Simphiwe Moropana and Khathutshelo Muedi.

The firefighter told EWN he still battled to clear his mind from the horrific scenes of that day.

"To see your colleague down there helplessly, no movement. You feel as if the world has closed all doors, you struggle to breathe. But you must carry on, jump over the person and leave him there and help others inside the building,” he said.

The City of Johannesburg's Emergency Management Services offered group counselling but he needed more focused intervention.

More than a year later, he's still trying to find help.

Another colleague, who also suffered from PTSD, said some employees had given up.

“A lot of us have sat together and looked up PTSD; we have only been able to help each other. Some of the guys were feeling a bit suicidal. You are not a counsellor, you are also broken.”

The city said it has a PTSD unit which was fully operational, but the firefighters said they have never heard of this service.

Meanwhile, clinical psychologist Mbele said this was a crisis: “Something has gone horribly, horribly wrong and we can imagine some of the reasons why it’s gone horribly wrong.”

While the findings of the Bank of Lisbon fire had been shared with the deceased’s families, it's feared that the effects would linger for far longer if the correct and urgent interventions were not implemented.