Dr Ntokozo Mzimela, an alumnus of UKZN’s Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, was recognised as a Global Health Icon at the 2023 Zenith Global Health Awards function in London.
Mzimela received the accolade for devoting her life to improving mental health awareness and access to care, especially among African communities for whom her non-profit organisation (NGO), Unbreakable Souls, provides a safe space for healing.
Known as “The Bug Dr” – a pseudonym she chose to appeal to both young and older patients – Mzimela is a passionate pathologist, microbiologist and her NGO’s founding philanthropist.
Unbreakable Souls is described as a hospital of dialogue to address mental health issues through individual counselling and focus group sessions conducted at community level. The NGO provides a supportive environment for those seeking help with expert panels an integral part of the organisation’s comprehensive approach to mental health care which aims to address the complexity of each individual’s unique needs.
Mzimela was in London to receive the award at the prestigious ceremony after being tagged on X (formerly known as Twitter) by a relative for the remarkable work she has done, with the resulting exposure landing her a nomination.
‘Receiving the global icon award is an incredible honour that evokes a range of emotions within me,’ said Mzimela. ‘On the one hand, I am filled with immense joy and excitement, as this recognition signifies the culmination of years of hard work and dedication. On the other, there is a sense of nostalgia as I reflect on my journey to this point in my life. It is truly humbling to witness my efforts being acknowledged on an international scale and I am grateful for the opportunity to inspire and connect with people around the world.’
Mzimela’s profound journey as a health advocate and philanthropist started with her own experience of battling depression at a young age. Faced with the lack of available resources and affordable care, she founded Unbreakable Souls, striving to provide free counselling and support to those in need. Driven by her determination and compassionate spirit, she aims to tackle the stigma attached to mental health boldly.
Unbreakable Souls has aptly coined its holistic mental health management approach as the “Broken Heart”. By referring to individuals affected by mental health issues as ‘pink lips, fancy suits, and empty hearts,’ they challenge the existing stigma surrounding mental illness, prompting a change of perspective within society. Through their expert-led programmes, the NGO encourages its patients to embrace their vulnerability and realise that they are not alone in their struggle.
Her exceptional work has garnered recognition and numerous nominations, showcasing the impact of her initiatives on communities. Nominations such as the Frontline Hero 2020, Voice of the Year 2022, Medical Specialist of the Year 2022, and 50 Most Memorable Women awards show that her innovative methods and compassionate advocacy have not gone unnoticed.
‘What makes me passionate about the work I do is seeing people thrive and find happiness. Witnessing individuals fully embrace life and overcome adversity, inspired by my words, brings me immense joy,’ she said. ‘I would encourage the younger generation to follow in my footsteps by teaching themselves how to navigate the lows and failures early on in life. It is important to remember that it’s never too late to start over and build a fulfilling life, regardless of the challenges life throws at you. I firmly believe that anything is possible for a Black child if they set their minds to it.’
Mzimela said one of her fondest memories from Medical School was the culture of togetherness and striving for excellence that UKZN fostered. ‘The environment motivated me to always strive for better and do my best.’
She is currently a module lead and lecturer of Integrated Pathology and Microbiology at Nelson Mandela University’s Medical School while pursuing a PhD focused on health education.
Words: Lunga Memela