THERESA (THERRY) K NHLAPO
10 December 1957 – 9 February 2001
Theresa (Therry) K. Nhlapo was a harbinger of hope. She provided hope to thousands of people suffering from mental illness where before there was fear and confusion. As outreach co-ordinator of the South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group (DASG) she spearheaded projects to bring knowledge and awareness of mental illness to a wide range of communities in South Africa, most of them in rural areas. Wherever she went, be it Bisho or Thohoyandou, she was met with an almost desperate request for more information about this frightening condition. “My aim is for people who suffer from a mental illness, that they are not outcasts. I want to fight the stigma, and sometimes suspicion, that this illness holds.” She was motivated in her crusade by the reaction of people who have battled for years with the symptoms of something they don’t understand. Many have searched for treatment with traditional healers, others have just meekly accepted their lot afraid and alone.
“Their faces light up when they hear that there is a very real reason for their condition, that it is not witchcraft and that help is at hand. For me this is fulfilling.” Recent research has indicated that a staggering 24 per cent of patients who visit primary care workers suffer from a mental disorder, many which remain undetected. Nhlapo, who is fluent in four languages, joined the DASG in 1997 after leaving her position as Head of the Department for Natural Sciences and a teacher of Mathematics and Physical Science at Mafori-Mphahlele High School. Initially she liased with local communities to encourage volunteers to come forward to assist in the running of local groups. This entailed dealing with local chapters of the Federation of Mental Health, Hospitals and the Department of Welfare and the Department of Correctional Services.
At the time of her death, she sat on the S A Federation for Mental Health’s Board of Management. She also represented the S A Federation of Mental Health at the SA Federal Council on Disability and served on the Board of Trustees of the Thabo Mbeki Development Fund for Disabled People.
After establishing 15 local groups it was realised that there was a very real need for Continuous Medical Education (CME) for doctors in these areas. Nhlapo co-ordinated with psychiatrists to address doctors workshops and meetings on topics such as depression, panic disorder, social phobia and post-traumatic stress disorder. To date there are over 35 rural groups active in South Africa and more than 35 CMEs have been completed, due to the generosity of pharmaceutical companies such as Eli Lilly, Novartis and Synthelabo.
“These doctors’ programmes are crucial in South Africa due to the lack of trained psychiatrists working in previously underprivileged areas. As well as building a strong relationship with regional professors and doctors to assist with ongoing training of mental health professionals, I have encouraged doctors to see patients free and give free medication whenever possible.”
Following requests from other professionals, training programmes are also being offered to teachers, police, social workers and nurses which include the identification and referral of various mental illnesses.
Perhaps her most challenging and exciting project was the implementation of a pilot programme on the diagnosis and management of common mental disorders in primary health care under the auspices of the World Health Organisation (WHO). The objective of the WHO was to develop an education programme designed to be a blueprint for a variety of different cultures and settings. It was created as a practical tool to be used to improve the knowledge, skills and behaviour of health care workers worldwide.
“Mpumalanga was chosen for the pilot programme with its 1.6 million residents and very limited psychiatric care. Workshops were carried out with a psychiatrists in discussion with general practitioners, other health care professionals, social workers, teachers and police.” Nhlapo achieved the monumental task of training 83 doctors and 285 professionals in three months. Following the success of this project further initiatives were undertaken in the Northern Province and Eastern cape.
Some of her other initiatives include implementing programmes in schools and with the Department of Education to help teachers recognise signs of depression. One major aim being to reduce the frighteningly high rate of teen suicides, particularly at exam time. She had also made presentations at the University of the North, University of the North West, Vista and Kwa-Ndebele College of Education explaining the work of the DASG to encourage psychology students to become more proactive in assisting their communities with mental health issues.
She established support groups with the Department of Correctional Services throughout the country and conducted Corporate Educational Programmes on depression and anxiety as well as on social phobia and post-traumatic stress disorder in the workplace. She scored a first by liasing with the Traditional Healers Association in order to inform them about western medication for mental illness. A meeting was established whereby the Chairman of the Association invited over 90 traditional healers to attend, which was addressed by a prominent Johannesburg psychiatrist.
More recently she gave a presentation on the DASG at a conference hosted by the National Aids Convention of South Africa. Her speech focused on the importance of training people to establish support groups in rural areas since there is a strong correlation between AIDS and depression.
Nhlapo was totally committed to her role in the support group. To say she was passionate about her work is an understatement. There were simply not enough hours in her day, especially as she was a compulsive student. Besides her Primary Teachers Certificate, Secondary Education Diploma and Adult Basic Education and Training Certificate she had a BA Degree from UNISA, majoring in Psychology and Education. An Honours degree in Psychology from Vista University from which she received Merit Awards for obtaining the highest percentage in Biology and Physical Science.
Somewhere in between she received a Basic Computer Literacy Certificate from Soweto Teachers Centre. However, this is not enough – she was studying the Advanced Course in Human Resource Management through UNISA. Not to mention the many Psychology books and journals she read for pleasure. This mother of two also found time to be a Chairperson of Aganang Women’s Club, Treasurer of Aganang Investment Club and Chairperson of the Student’s Christian Movement. She was also a volunteer youth worker for reformed street kids. “As a result of the ongoing success of our rural developments initiated by the DASG, not only are sufferers now empowered to seek treatment but also to take an active role on their road to “wellness”. Families previously economically and socially hampered by the illness of a family member can now benefit from the sufferer having access to support systems and later perhaps to help other sufferers coming to terms with and overcoming their condition.”
Therry Nhlapo could be justifiably proud of her achievements.
A funeral service for Therry will be held on Saturday 17 February 2001 at 07h30. The service will take place at St Phillips Catholic Church, 848 Moeta Street, Moletsane, Soweto proceeding to Avalon Cemetry at 10h00.
The Depression and Anxiety Support Group mourns the sudden death of Therry. Her contribution to the Group and mental health advocacy will be sorely missed. Our thoughts are with her children Nhlanhla and Bongane and the rest of her family.