In 2004, Denise Mortlock was discharged from a psychiatric hospital in Durban with absolutely no knowledge of the condition she had been diagnosed with (bipolar disorder type 1) or how to get support. She saw a notice of a notice advertising a meeting of a Bipolar Disorder Support Group at her psychiatrist’s office. Her husband took her the meeting, where they learnt about SADAG and met people with the same condition. “The relief of knowing there were others with the same condition was immeasurable - not only for me, but for my husband too as he was able to discuss the ordeal we had gone through with other spouses and family members”, says Denise.
When the couple moved to Swaziland in 2006, there was no support for people suffering or affected by mental illness. Knowing how much the support group had helped her and her family, Denise started her own in 2007. And has been invaluable, not only to its members but to the cause of mental health awareness and destigmatisation.
The first step of Denise’s incredible superhero story in Swaziland was when she approached Pastor Ken Jefferson of Mbabane Chapel and asked if she could hold monthly meetings on the last Tuesday of every month at 17:30. He kindly agreed as he had worked as a pastor at a psychiatric centre in the UK and totally understood the need and benefit of such a support group.
Despite the fact that Swaziland has a very well run National Psychiatric Referral Hospital, people are still afraid to go there because of the stigma attached to mental illness. Eleven years later, the Mbabane Mental Health Support Group is the only one in the country. However, Denise’s support group has got people talking about mental illness and many more understand what a huge part mental wellness plays in our overall well-being. Denise believes that if more funding were spent on mental health, this would decrease the amount spent on other illnesses that result from undiagnosed depression or other mental illnesses.
Denise uses every opportunity to advocate and create awareness on mental health issues. She has an average of 15 people at each meeting, with almost triple that at some meetings – especially those about suicide. She was invited by the Ministry of Health to be part of the Mental Health Steering Committee to facilitate the formalization, coordination, and standardisation of mental health services in Swaziland. “I used my own experiences as a user of mental health services to ensure that the voice of the patients is heard.” Denise firmly believes that you cannot help others without being helped yourself. Sharing with others her tips on adhering to her medication as prescribed as well as her self-help tips and strategies keeps her on track too.
Running a support group so tirelessly can be exhausting but Denise never gives up. “Every time I think I am getting too old or too stale to run this group, I will receive a call from someone in desperate need of encouragement – whether a person who has been diagnosed with a mental illness or a family member who doesn’t know where to turn – and I give myself a shake up and carry on. It is important to me that people know that there is hope even when there isn’t as yet a cure.” And she has been recognised for her efforts.
From the local Rotary Club, to the University of Swaziland, local TV talk shows, and the Women’s Forum, Denise has been invited to share her story and hope with the citizens of Swaziland. She says, apart from Cassey at SADAG, her husband is her biggest supporter – and sponsors all the teas and eats at her meetings. Denise never ceases to inspire those around her and is personally helping a lady from Ghana establish her own support group.
Denise Mortlock is a true hero and champion for mental health. SADAG is incredibly proud to have such an amazing support group leader who is such a source of energy and strength for us all. She has done so much for her community and for mental health in general. In all the years we have known her and had the privilege to work with her, she has never stopped fighting for the rights of people affected by mental health issues.