My colleagues and I often care for patients suffering from hallucinations, prophesying, and claiming to speak with God, among other symptoms—in mental health care, it’s sometimes very difficult to tell apart religious belief from mental illness…. Our conclusions frequently stem from the behaviors we see before us. Take an example of a man who walks into an emergency department, mumbling incoherently. He says he’s hearing voices in his head, but insists there’s nothing wrong with him. He hasn’t used any drugs or alcohol. If he were to be evaluated by mental health professionals, there’s a good chance he might be diagnosed with a psychotic disorder like schizophrenia. But what if that same man were deeply religious? What if his incomprehensible language was speaking in tongues?
In the same newspaper there is a report about Cabinet taking umbrage at the “personal” nature of the comments about the health of Minister Manto Tshabalala–Msimang. In line with an article in the Cape Times on Wednesday by her spokesperson, the Cabinet seems to suggest that it is off limits to speculate on her health. Without conclusive proof of her bad health we must shut up.
But in a democracy the health of the Health Minister – especially one who touts the use of garlic, olive oil and the African potato – is of intense interest to us all and newspapers have a duty to inform us about it. If one is a public servant (and that is what Ministers are supposed to be – servants of the people), one unfortunately will be scrutinised. To complain about that scrutiny as the Cabinet does is to complain about one of the essential and important elements of a democracy.
Of course, one would hope that speculation and opinion would be within the boundaries of basic decency. One would not want to treat the Minister with the same contempt and even hatred that she had treated her enemies in the past. So when the DA spokesperson said that the Minister should be fired before she died in office it was perhaps too insensitive.
Nevertheless, we have a right and the newspapers have a duty to inform us about the Health Minister’s health. The Minister or her officials act in a profoundly undemocratic way if they suggest newspapers should not speculate on her health and must believe the completely implausible denials of bad health.
My motto is: as soon as a goverment spokesperson denies something, one should become suspicious because when they start denying something there is probably some truth to the matter.