Explainer Series: International Day of Persons with Disabilities

SAFMH News Room

Welcome back to our explainer blog series, wherein we unpack specific mental health topics and share stories of those with lived experience. In this edition we are focusing on International Day of Persons with Disabilities.

An estimated 1.3 billion people experience significant disability. This represents 1 in 6 of the world’s population. [WHO, 2023]

International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD) is commemorated on 3 December every year. The day aims to promote the rights and well-being of persons with disabilities in all spheres of society and development, and to increase awareness of the situation of persons with disabilities in every aspect of political, social, economic and cultural life.

From the social model, the World Health Organisation (WHO) describes disability is the interaction between individuals with a health condition (e.g. depression or down syndrome) and their environment (e.g. public transport or negative attitudes).

Unfortunately, findings from the forthcoming UN Disability and Development Report 2023 indicate that the world is even more off-track in meeting several Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for persons with disabilities.

Untreated mental health conditions are the leading cause of years living with disabilities around the world. That means that out of all the health conditions, including diabetes, hypertension, and cancer, mental health accounts for the most disability-related outcomes because of its far-reaching impacts on people’s lives and wellbeing. This is why we must consider mental illness in all conversations, programming, and policy around disability.

At SAFMH, we include psychosocial and intellectual disabilities in our work, especially when it comes to awareness. Each year we commemorate Intellectual Disability Awareness month (March) and Psychosocial Disability Awareness Month (July).

At the 9th session of the Conference of States Parties to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2016, then-Disability Rights Fund Programme Officer Mr Paul Deany stated that “psychosocial disability remains one of the most challenging and misunderstood areas of disability”.

In his speech, Mr Deany also noted that “the debate on the treatment of persons with psychosocial disabilities is still led by professionals and not persons with disabilities themselves”.

This is something Johannesburg-based poet and artist, Sydney Makhutla, fully supports as he shares his story and poetry to raise awareness of mental health.

Sydney, who also owns his own creative business, believes that more conversations and discussions about mental health need to happen.

In order to engage people we need to first talk about the definition of mental health. Break it down so that it can be understood. I used to use my grant money to make copies of leaflets and booklets I would get from the clinics. I then distributed these.’’

First diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder in 2001, Sydney said he was left shocked and in denial when he first heard his diagnosis.

I panicked when I heard that I had a mental illness. I was so shocked that I destroyed my books, songs and poems. I could not communicate with my friends or be around them. It took me a long time to understand my diagnosis and that I would have to follow treatment for the rest of my life. Being in and out of Sterkfontein [hospital] helped me understand that my illness was caused by a chemical imbalance in my brain. Bipolar is a chronic illness, like diabetes or other illnesses. I started doing more research and I came to understand that I can still be a part of this society regardless of stigma. I can work, be productive, have a family of my own and still be high functioning.

As part of taking care of his wellbeing, Sydney turns to his creativity to share positive messages and to teach people that whatever they can’t see with their eyes, they can see through art. For him, being an artist has allowed him to create hope for himself and others in his community.

It’s my job as an artist to bring out the positive side of the story. Being an artist also means being able to share my creativity and skills with other community members.’’

After the Life Esidimeni tragedy, Sydney took to the page and wrote a poem. He had been a Life Esidimeni resident and knew many of the people whose lives were lost. Sydney said that he wrote the poem from a place of anger but knew it was something that he had to do.

You can read Sydney’s poem here.

Twenty-two years on from his diagnosis and Sydney believes that his journey has been a quest to finding out who the real Sydney is. His mother played a big role in his improvement and she’s always taught him to love everyone he comes across regardless of colour and ability.

There are a lot of things I had to learn and unlearn. I am more positive about life than ever before.”


This International Day of Persons with Disabilities (IDPD), we reiterate the call that mental health is a universal human right and that we need to achieve Sustainable Development Goal Number 3, the right to health and wellbeing for, with and by persons with disabilities. Building on our World Mental Health Day theme, we continue to advocate for evidence-based, cost-effective mental health services, like those outlined in the Mental Health Policy Framework 2023 – 2030, which can be implemented today to improve the mental wellbeing of all in South Africa. Read our press release for IDPD here.

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