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Book Review: This memoir confronts the stigma attached to mental illnesses and how to overcome them

More often than not we come across books that force us to think beyond the comfort of our being, provoke unprecedented emotions and questions that can only be answered through self-introspection. Dr Samke J. Ngcobo’s journey with mental illness began 19 years ago and brought a whirl of uncertainty where she had to relearn how to navigate a mind that once belonged to her.

Reflections of a convoluted mind deeply dives into Dr Samke’s journey with Bipolar Disorder - she candidly details her experience from inception while unpacking the brutal effects that come with manic episodes. In one striking introductory passage Dr Samke writes ’Sanity, something so critical and delicate yet often taken for granted’ beyond these words lie a deeper sentiment that confronts stereotypes attached to mental illness.

Delving into her personal anecdotes Dr Samke leads the reader to her grappling relationship with Madam J - her manic alter ego - she describes her as a fierce phoenix who’s presence leave destruction for her to mend in the aftermath.The book spotlight the constantly side-lined narratives affecting the mentally ill, it engage, challenges and educate - the reader gets exposed to what it means to live with mental illness, the challenges that not only affect the person but their families, community, career and beyond. We chat to Dr Samke about Reflections of a convoluted mind.

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What made you write Reflections of a convoluted mind? take us through the process?

I was inspired to write Reflections of a Convoluted Mind after I had reached a pinnacle of my climb of living with my mental illness (Bipolar Disorder) for so many years. I wanted to humanise the lived experience of mental healthcare users and give context to the journey of navigating mental illness. After the trauma of having a public episode, I decided to claim my power and voice back by confronting the stigma of having the illness as my identity and used it as a tool to empower myself and educate others. Often times, people do not understand the lived experience of mental illness so I decided to share this aspect of my life in order to effect change in the lives of people who read my book by bringing a paradigm shift and improved perspective one reader at a time.

The process of writing my book was deeply personal, raw and authentic. It had its difficult moments where I had to contend with difficult emotions that were triggered as I walked down memory lane but more than anything, it was therapeutic and brought me pure healing. The beauty that emerged was the knowledge that my struggles were not in vain because they were given a space to matter and be valued.

Your frustration on public sector and the treatment of patients in public hospitals is something many South Africans continue to struggle with. What do you think is the solution to culminate the ill treatment of patients in these facilities?

I believe that education and ongoing advocacy by various individuals and organisations is what will ignite change. Being proactive by engaging with leadership in the public sector and holding them accountable is what will direct us to positive change.Collaboration of mental health advocacy groups and organisations as a united front will strengthen the impact that stands to be achieved.Amplifying the voices of people who have this shared experience will humanise their lived experience.As someone who has worked in state facilities and has also been on the receiving end of the care, I developed the resolve to make my voice matter and to count. It felt like a calling and responsibility that I owed myself and others who resonate with my experience.

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Many people who suffer from mental illness have low chances of education in South Africa.How did you manage to rise above your condition and not only make it to University but study medicine, take us through your support system.

Early intervention following diagnosis is critical in order to optimise the quality of life of someone living with mental illness. A multi-disciplinary team approach is critical to ensure this. I am immensely grateful for my support system because I would not be where I am today had it not been for this being in place.It was difficult to make it through university with my condition but the presence of my loved ones, professional support and academic support enabled me to overcome those overwhelming challenges. I am still in the process of rising above my condition because it is a life-long journey. I have come a very long way to finally arriving at a point of saying that I am not suffering from Bipolar Disorder but I am thriving despite it. I am not alone on this journey and that is my saving grace. Empathy, patience and compassion goes a long way.

Do you think think sharing your story will ignite a conversation regarding the stigma of mental illness in the black community?

Absolutely! I believe that my story serves as a mirror to reflect the reality of the lived experience of a black girl and eventually a woman who encountered various forms of stigma which are areality in the African context. There were many explanations for the cause of my behaviour and I was honest in sharing them. I experienced cultural stigma, religious stigma and social stigma, which are all a reality for black community. What I share in my book is educational, insightful and honest. My book serves a dual purpose of sharing lived experience from an authentic source and is coupled with professional insights in order to educate and empower. I believe that the best storyteller and advocate for mental illness, is the person who is living with it. My hope is to not only ignite a conversation regarding the stigma of mental illness in the black community, but to confront it and overcome it in this lifetime. My book is a drop in the ocean in making this possible but every drop counts!

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