Riky Rick passed away on Wednesday 23 February. Image via Insatgram @rikyrickworld.
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Mental health in the spotlight as tributes pour in for South African rapper Riky Rick

We mourn the death of award-winning South African rapper Rikhado Muziwendlovu Makhado (34), known by his stage name Riky Rick. The death of Makhado has South Africans reflecting on depression and mental health.

The family of multi-faceted musician, actor, entrepreneur, and fashion designer, Rikhado ‘Riky Rick’ Makhado confirmed that he passed away in the early morning on the 23rd of February in Johannesburg. He leaves behind his wife Bianca Naidoo, two children Jordan Makhado and Maik Daniel Makhado, and his mother and five siblings.

He posted his last tweet at 4.20 Am on the 23rd of February 2020, the day he died.

Makhado’s family has asked for privacy in their time of grief, as many of his peers and fans reflect on the state of mental health in men. The rapper spoke publicly about his depression and would openly advocate for people to seek help if they were battling with their mental health. He and other public figures that disclose their challenges are helping others prioritise mental health and moving the needle in the destigmatisation of a pressing public health issue.

Mental health is a public health issue

According to statistics released by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), one in six South Africans suffers from anxiety, depression, or substance-use problems (and this does not include more serious conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia).

Cassey Chambers, Operations Director at SADAG said at the time of the report that, because “people don’t know where to go to get help, or are too scared to seek it, the stats we have are still not a true reflection of what is actually happening on the ground.”

Considering this data, it is safe to conclude that the mental wellbeing of South Africa (like in many other populations around the world) is in ‘crisis.’ But despite the growing need for mental healthcare resources, SADAG claims that less than 16% of sufferers receive treatment for mental illnesses.

This in addition to stigmas surrounding mental health impedes the treatment (because mental illness is treatable) of the array of disorders. In 2019 Chambers told the South African College of Applied Psychology, “In Zulu, there is not even a word for ‘depression’ – it’s basically not deemed a real illness in the African culture. As a result, sufferers are afraid of discrimination, of being disowned by their families, or losing their jobs and social status 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.”

Furthermore, because of environmental factors, poverty, lack of mental health resources, care, and support, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group reports that there are 23 known cases of suicide in South Africa every day, and for every person that commits suicide, 10 have attempted it. They also detail that before Covid-19, the organisation fielded 600 calls a day, that number has risen to 2,200 calls a day- an increase of nearly 40%.

Global suicide estimates

Unfortunately, every day many Africans die as a result of suicide. Millions of people across the continent at any given time suffer from anxiety and depression, but only a few seek and receive adequate diagnosis and treatment. 

One of the biggest reasons why few people seek help is because they do not want to be labeled as having a mental disorder because of the stigma associated with mental illness. There is widespread misunderstanding, and negative stereotypes and attitudes surrounding mental illness. Considering the stigma, many people suffer in silence. There is need to approach mental health issues, and suicide from a sensitive and informed place of compassion that also focuses on the real situation of the people facing these struggles.

The WHO reports that depression is an illness characterised by persistent sadness and a loss of interest in activities that you normally enjoy and it is a common risk factor for suicide. WHO published its Global Health Estimates Suicide worldwide in 2019 report on 16 June 2021. The report gives a breakdown of suicide rates per country.

According to the report, 13,774 suicides were reported in South Africa in 2019. Of these deaths, 10,861 were men while 2,913 were women. This translates to rates of 37.6 per 100,000 for men and 9.8 per 100,000 for women.

South Africa recorded the third-highest suicide rate out of all African countries in the report, at 23.5 per 100,000 population.

Riky Rick’s shining light

Considering the attitudes surrounding mental health, it is inspiring that Makhado spoke about it as openly as he did. Even though the responses were often polarised he started and sustained an important conversation.

Public figures have taken to social media to express their shock and condolence:

Makhado will be sorely missed by his peers, fans, and his grieving family.

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