Depression: a silent killer

Warning: this blog post speaks about issues of mental health, depression and suicide

I vividly recall the day my supervisor called me into his office and told me: your friend decided to take her life last night. It never made sense to me. I mean, she was such a bubbly person who was always willing to solve other people’s problems, how is it that I could not tell that she was going through her own problems too. Since then I have taken a keen interest in trying to understand mental health issues and somehow attempt to raise awareness on the topic.

We all go through moments of emotional sadness or low moments. These can be caused by various reasons such as relationship problems, academic issues, work issues, or loss of a last one amongst a few other factors. Personally, when lab experiments do not work out, or experience rejection (a very common occurrence in academia), it does trigger moments of emotional sadness. Fortunately, most of us can bounce back from such emotional lows. Sadly though, there are some people who constantly experience various levels of sadness, which are not necessarily linked to obvious triggers and this is characterized as depression. I have always naively thought that this disease is associated with a person’s character, however, in during my studies in Physiology, I have learnt that the disease is caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain, and can affect anyone. The discussion of the underlying biology of this disease is beyond the scope of this blog.

Due to my keen interest in this topic, I have always been on the lookout for any traits/symptoms of depression from the people surrounding me. This is an attempt to try to be there for such people and potentially refer them to seek help before they find themselves in the tragic situation that my late friend found myself in. While I was scrolling on Instagram stories the other day, I came across a post by a good friend of mine – Nokulunga Gumede, which highlighted some of the misconceptions about depression that the general public has. I messaged her to thank her for sharing the post as it will help me with information on a SAYAS blog post on mental health that I have always planned to write. She responded by letting me know that she had actually suffered from the disease and she would like to share her journey and highlight her experiences and her own journey. I was shocked to find out that she was suffering from the condition and she was on the verge of taking her own life. We decided to have an online discussion where she shared her journey to encourage anyone who might be in the same shoes she found herself in. See our video interview below:

Although the symptoms of depression differ amongst various individuals, they include a constant feeling of sadness, fatigue, difficulty sleeping or too much sleeping, loss of interest in things you previously enjoyed, anxiety, changes in appetite, irritability and most importantly, the urge to commit suicide. Some of these symptoms overlap with other diseases, therefore, if you suspect that you could be suffering from the disease, it is important to see a professional health practitioner who can help in explaining various symptoms. There are various organizations that are there to help. Within Universities, there are support services such as the student counseling unit of the university of Pretoria. Nationally, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group is a readily available platform you can freely use for free assistance with any mental health issues you may be suffering from.

Who to contact when experiencing mental health issues?

Fortunately there are various contacts that are readily available numbers to contact for assistance with mental health issues, see them below.

Suicide crisis helpline (24 hours) – 0800 567 567                              

CIPLA mental health helpline (24 hours) – 080 456 789

CIPLA WhatsApp chat line (9 am – 4 pm) – 076 882 2775                              

Department of Social Development substance abuse helpline (24 hours) – 0800 12 13 14

The ones left behind

Last week, I cycled past a bus reading ‘5G – don’t get left behind’ on its back. This very bus drives through Cape Town’s city centre and its more affluent suburbs, but also transports many workers who come in from low-income areas. The message bothered me. It was there for to sell a product and thus not necessarily meant to convey a meaningful message. Still, it did echo assumptions that I find to be prominent in discussions on digital media and technological developments more broadly.

For one thing, there is the premise that there will be an improved humanity with an increasing access to information. Information flows tend to be almost religiously celebrated as having supreme value in and of themselves (also referred to as dataism), as being inherently progressive, and as levelling social playing fields.

Presenting technisation as a lofty ideal or a superior mode of being to achieve rather than something created from a particular vantage point effectively veils the authoritative regimes of the technological revolution we currently witness. This includes the cultures and values embedded in tech products. Very few women and people of colour are hired in tech industries, leading to the development of problematic algorithms.[1] Even more problematically, designs and codes are presented as neutral and gender- and colour-blind, much like the employment politics in bis tech.[2]

Adding to their opacity is the fact that tech products are often portrayed as independent actors. Power relations precipitating unequal access to resources that tie in with social, economic and educational developments are, consequently, neatly brushed under the discursive carpet. Framing access as a matter of capability and choice (reach it, grab it – or else get left behind) rather than something that forms part of a historical development supports the prioritisation of the needs of some while the experiences of others (those who cannot reach) are rendered even less visible and relevant for imagined futures.

In Cape Town, where the geographic, economic and social divisions of Apartheid are notoriously persistent, the ‘don’t get left behind’ paradigm seems particularly cynical. It foreshadows an even more unequal future and places the responsibility for ‘being left behind’ onto individuals unable, for example, to invest in 5G products. This form of exclusion severs itself from problematic histories of divisions and portrays the ones to come as both evitable (ones can make the “right” choices and catch up with tech) and as an inescapable future of insiders and outsiders – much like the narratives of numerous sci-fi plots.

Why sci-fi could be the secret weapon in China's soft-power arsenal |  Financial Times

It was throughout my studying Tinder that I grew increasingly intrigued by what lies behind the shiny, promising exteriors of technologies and artificial intelligence (AI). This is why I want to continue studying their impact on our well-being, social identities, politics, economies and demographic developments. Something I am very curious about is the role of algorithms in how we as their users come to understand ourselves, the world around us, and how we relate to others. I’m especially interested in the impacts of technologies on relationships of trust.

The more I read about AI more broadly, the more I find myself getting irritated with its overly positivistic representations. Especially when people like Amazon CO Jeff Bezos shamelessly flaunt their extraordinary wealth by taking a quick trip to space in a phallic-shaped rocket – and making some extra cash by selling spare seats to similarly wealthy people.

When products like the new Tesla humanoid robot named Optimus are developed and when Amazon’s AI assistant Alexa seems to have learned a little too much about your habits, it is useful to think back to Bezos’s phallus-shaped rocket – just as a memento of how the products we are sold as progressive are anything but neutral, nor are they necessarily designed for our needs. While there are well-intentioned inventions (especially in the medical field), AI and big tech should not be treated as inherently superior approaches to human sense-making but rather as complementing it if well-developed. This is because tech solutions are not “semi-sentient” as ultrarich AI-enthusiast Elon Musk promises his new human-replacement robot to be and they only have the “sense” of morality that has been encoded in them.

If left unchecked, the trajectory of dataism may very well be to the detriment of humanism. Thankfully, this is not a sci-fi movie or a zero-sum game. We are in a position in which we can still decide just how to handle these seemingly inevitable developments that are sprung on us from silicon-valley and co. We can contextualise and look at them as the political and socially momentous projects that they are. “Don’t get left behind” messages in this context should serve as a wake-up call. But instead of letting them induce panic and self-questioning as the advertisers appear to intend, we should treat it as a reminder to consider people at the margins and designing appropriate interventions instead of placing blame in the most inappropriate ways.

[1] For more on this, read D’ignazio, C. and Klein, L.F., 2020. Data feminism. MIT Press.

[2] See Noble, S.U., 2018. Algorithms of oppression. New York University Press.