The ‘Fake’ Interpreter At Nelson Mandela’s Memorial Has A Lot To Teach Us About Mental Health Care

CREDIT: AP Photo/ Evan Vucci

Thamsanqa Jantjie stands next to President Obama at this week's memorial for Nelson Mandela

Tuesday’s memorial service for Nelson Mandela provided an opportunity to honor the international human rights champion, but also gave birth to several strange controversies: a great deal of discussion over President Obama’s decision to snap a selfie with a female world leader, and accusations that the sign language interpreter for the ceremony had faked it. Bruno Druchen, the national director of the Deaf Federation of South Africa, noted that the man on stage “was moving his hands around but there was no meaning in what he used his hands for.” The deaf community was outraged over the unintelligible translation.

The translator in question, Thamsanqa Jantjie, quickly became a punchline. On Wednesday, NBC’s “Today Show” ran a segment in which a producer mimed his own fake sign language; the network apologized for the joke shortly afterward.

In fact, as more details about the story emerged, it became clear that Jantjie actually struggles with mental illness. He has schizophrenia, and says he was once hospitalized in a mental health facility for 19 months. He claims that while he was on stage during Mandela’s memorial, he was hearing voices and experiencing hallucinations.

He also has a history of violence. On Friday, the South African outlet reported that Jantjie has been arrested multiple times for crimes ranging from rape to murder to kidnapping. Most of the charges brought against him ended up being dropped, “allegedly because he was mentally unfit to stand trial.” Jantjie’s presence at Tuesday’s memorial service — during which he was mere feet away from several world leaders, including President Obama — has sparked concerns about the security arrangements at the event.

Now, instead of being mocked as crazy, Jantjie is being viewed as a serious threat who shouldn’t have been allowed at the memorial. Amid the increasingly complicated story, however, it’s important to remember that Jantjie is not well. And his position in the spotlight should help highlight the fact that South Africa’s mental health sector leaves much to be desired.

There is no official mental health policy in South Africa. The country drafted a set of policies in this area in 1997, but they weren’t officially put into practice, and mental health services remain decentralized and underfunded throughout the country’s provinces. Although lawmakers passed a relatively progressive Mental Health Care Act in 2002, it’s not necessarily funded or enforced in the absence of this official policy.

That’s created an environment in which there’s a huge need for this type of medical care that’s largely going unmet. It’s estimated that one in five people in South Africa struggles with mental health issues, but nearly 75 percent of them aren’t getting the treatment they need. Just 15 percent of South Africans can afford private sector health care, but there are big shortages in the public health sector — there are only 18 beds in mental health facilities for every 100,000 people, and just one percent of them are specifically reserved for minors.

Those statistics may even be relatively optimistic, according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), because many people don’t realize they have mental health issues in the first place. Mental health stigma is yet another stumbling block to connecting South Africans with the treatment they need.

“In Zulu, there is not even a word for ‘depression’ — it’s basically not deemed a real illness in the African culture,” SADAG’s operations director, Cassey Chambers, explained in an interview in October. “As a result, sufferers are afraid of being discriminated against, disowned by their families or even fired from work, 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.”

These issues aren’t necessarily specific to South Africa. Here in the United States, gaps in the mental health care system — including a dwindling number of available beds in psychiatric hospitals — prevent some people from receiving the treatment they need, sometimes with tragic consequences. States have been slashing funding for these services for years, a dynamic that’s pushed a growing number of mentally ill Americans into the criminal justice system. Nearly half of psychiatrists don’t accept private insurance, and many Americans simply cannot afford mental health treatment.

People with mental illnesses are not necessarily predisposed to violence — even though that’s one of the primary misconceptions about mental health issues — so Jantjie’s case doesn’t necessarily illustrate all of the larger dynamics in this space. But it’s yet another example of an individual falling through the cracks, ultimately missing out on the care that could make them well, and a reminder that these people deserve better.