By: Tracey Ruff
Considering that there are over 17 million South Africans living with a mental illness, it is more than likely that you know of someone who is trying to cope with a mental health issue. Fast-paced lifestyles, long and busy working hours, other illness like HIV, and numerous socio-economic factors all contribute to stress, anxiety, depression, and dangerous coping mechanisms, like substance abuse.
The sad reality is that in South Africa, mental health is mostly swept under the proverbial rug. Society, in general, is largely intolerant when it comes to mental illnesses. If you take a moment to reflect, have you ever called someone crazy or insane or weird? Have you laughed at someone who has behaved strangely in public? Have you dismissed or downplayed someone’s anxiety or depression by saying, ‘it’s all in your head, get over it, just choose to be positive’?
While it is a normal human reaction to be judgemental of things we don’t understand, it is important that we, as a society, begin to educate ourselves about mental illness or, at the very least, be a bit more compassionate and empathetic to those who are struggling with some form of mental disorder. While it may seem harmless, calling someone crazy or strange or various other labels reinforces and perpetuates the stigma attached to mental illnesses – and it is this very stigma that prevents thousands of people seeking help and treatment. People are made to feel ashamed of what they have, so they choose to suffer in silence, which more often than not leads to drastic consequences like self-harming and suicide.
I am sure some of you reading this post will recall the Life Healthcare Esidimeni scandal that came to light last year. In 2015, the Gauteng Department of Health, in an attempt to save money, transferred around 1700 psychiatric patients from Life Esidimeni to their families, non-governmental organisations, and other hospitals. It was later discovered that 144 patients (which could be 156 according to a recent article) had died because the NGOs were incapable of providing adequate care, specialised treatment, and decent conditions. When it comes to psychiatric illnesses, government has simply turned a blind eye: there is very little help available to those who are struggling and for those who do manage to get treatment, state hospitals are usually understaffed and have little resources and funding.
While the Esidimeni tragedy cast the spotlight on the shocking state of mental healthcare in South Africa, it is very difficult for us, as individuals, to effect large social and governmental change. But there are small things each of us can do to make a difference to those who need it.
On the 30th March 2018, various global initiatives will be celebrating World Bipolar Day to fight stigma and increase awareness about this debilitating disorder. In an attempt to help raise awareness, the team at MyTherapy, which is a smartphone medication reminder and health tracker app, has created a list of small things you can do to help someone who is trying to cope with mental health issues.
- Listen. If someone you know says he/she is not coping with stress or anxiety or you may suspect depression, do not dismiss or downplay his/her worries. Simply listen, avoid offering cliché or general advice, and suggest he/she seeks help from a healthcare professional.
- Avoid saying things like, ‘I don’t understand you, you are being selfish. Just get up and try to be more positive’ or ‘We all go through problems, that’s life, stop worrying’. Negative comments like these only reinforce what the person already believes about him-/her-self and further exacerbate the intense feelings of worthlessness and despair.
- Rather offer support and encouragement by saying simple things like, ‘I understand that you are sick and I am sorry that this is so difficult for you. I know I don’t understand but let me know how I can help you right now’.
- Never dismiss/ ignore suicide threats. If someone is talking about self-harming or suicide, try and help him/her seek professional help.
- Reassure the person that help is always available. If the person in question does not have the financial resources to receive private care, help him/her find counsellors/ psychologists who offer lower rates or even free services (many universities offer these free services).
- If the person in question is already taking medication to help manage his/her condition, encourage him/her to take his/her medication consistently, without fail. Medication only works if and only if it is taken exactly as prescribed. There are many health apps on smartphone app stores that you can recommend to the person, like MyTherapy. This app, for example, helps patients adhere to their medication regimens strictly and allows them to track their moods, symptoms, medication side-effects, and health goals.
Mental illnesses are like other illnesses that affect the body in the sense that they require treatment to be managed and controlled. Whereas other chronic illnesses affect different bodily organs (like the heart, kidney, or lungs), mental illnesses affect the brain due to chemical imbalances. Mental illnesses are real and deserve respect, attention, and treatment. In South Africa, it is estimated that only 14% of psychologists are available to treat nearly 85% of the population, which means that it is up to us, as a society, to be more informed, accepting, and supportive of those needing help. You don’t judge or label those with cancer, diabetes, or heart disease as crazy, right? So why should you do it to those who have mental illnesses?