A journey into the state of African mental health in “Black People Don’t Get Depressed”

Black People Don't Get Depressed

By Mamelodi Marakalala 

Sara Chitambo-Hatira leans towards telling authentic and compelling stories in her career as a film director and producer. She received a Master of Arts in Digital Documentary Production from Sussex University in the United Kingdom. She is also licensed in Media and Communications through the Gordon Institute of Business Science’s Online Masterclass. 

Before shifting to filmmaking, Chitambo-Hatira starred as Nina in a Namibian short film called Beef (2007). Films she has directed include The Capacity of Cap City (2017), a short documentary that delves into the times and trials of Pretoria’s hip-hop scene, and Cecilia’s Escape (2019), a short coming-of-age film that follows the story of 16-year-old Cecilia and her Congolese family living in Yeoville, Johannesburg, as they navigate life after her father’s death and as she becomes her own person in the world. 

Black People Don’t Get Depressed (2024) is Sara Chitambo-Hatira’s feature-length directorial debut journeying into mental health in Africa, with a particular focus on depression and the perceptions of depression on the African continent. Her approach to making this film sparks a parallel with the image of someone meandering through a dark walkway with a beam of light at the end that seems to promise a sense of healing. As the narration goes, “And so I continue to do the work; re-parenting my inner child, putting the pieces of my broken and neglected self back together.” 

Chitambo-Hatira created this documentary at a moment when it became intolerable to avoid or deny her struggles with depression. In facing her antagonistic mind, Chitambo-Hatira invited other Africans to join this personal expedition. The film tackles gripping questions about what depression is and how it presents itself in people’s lives with much sensibility and openness. 


The individuals featured in the documentary cite the hold of depression on the mind, its inescapability, thoughts of suicide, the outbursts and exertion that it comes with, the reality of medication or institutionalisation, and the devastation that follows the afflicted and befalls the afflicted’s loved ones. The film unfolds through multiple recollections and stories told from first-hand perspectives, which makes it an educational experience for the audience. It is also poetic and dramatic, which makes it transportive and enables the viewer’s empathy. 


One of the most important elements, if not the most important element, of the film is exploring depression and mental health in the context of African indigenous and diasporic communities. The title of Black People Don’t Get Depressed is reflective of the denial and disregard many Africans have towards mental illness when it is affecting their own. Words such as “black people don’t get depressed” cut through the societal landscape of our townships and villages because they are said very often, and they can also reverberate in the minds of those grappling with depression. 


The film also explores the spectrum of fallacies and stigmatisation, both in the characters’ personal histories and in collective domains, that surround the reasons mental illnesses such as depression go unnoticed, unacknowledged, or easily dismissed in African communities. This also invites the audience to revert to their previous, perhaps overlooked, encounters with such unmitigated truths. 


Depression, especially because it is a mood disorder, is sometimes dismissed as a fleeting reactionary emotion and likened to stress. Those who are depressed are often judged as lacking willpower in life or as not having any control over their own emotions, and they are advised to stomach their condition or to engage in activities generally known to create sparks of positive emotions. 

On the other side of this coin are the cultural and spiritual beliefs that many Africans hold, that firmly offer Africa-centralised, traditionally-rigid interpretations of what people with depression are going through and what they need. Most of the time, as also inferred by the title, it is considered a problem only white people can have due to the systematic design of institutions and knowledge production in the larger psychology/psychiatry disciplines. These various constituents are unearthed through the different narratives and visual storytelling of the film. 


What Chitambo-Hatira has in common with the people she engaged in the documentary is that they are all creatives. As such, the film can serve as a foundation for the discourse around depression and mental health within the arts and cultural landscape. In my experience visiting art studios around Johannesburg, I have encountered a fair share of Black artists whose art practices serve as their path to healing from depression. Their art-making process becomes the therapeutic intervention they desperately need, they explore themes of mental illness or portray subjects in states of psychological affliction to make sense of their condition. 


Black People Don’t Get Depressed is especially important in our current social panorama, where many Black people are progressively turning inward to explore and build healthier relationships with themselves. It is also significant given the scarcity of consideration for the mental wellness of Black people within and beyond their streams of creativity, vocations, and other various modes of being in society. The film is for those seeking personalised and relatable narratives on the everyday experiences of living with or seeing mental illness, and those who wish to walk along the journey that the characters in the film continue to walk to regain wellness and normalcy. It is also a way for people to revisit their own beliefs on the subject. 


Black People Don’t Get Depressed is featured in the ENCOUNTERS 26th South African International Documentary Festival, which takes place from 20 – 30 June 2024 at cinemas in Johannesburg and Cape Town. More details about the screenings can be found here




Anyone who may be struggling with depression, anxiety, or any other form of mental disorder can contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). With 24-hour and toll-free helplines, it is a good start to finding support. 

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