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Destigmatising mental illness

Changing how we think about mental health is a necessary step in helping so many people who are suffering in silence. This is how you can reach out.

It’s not unusual for someone with depression, anxiety- or bipolar mood disorder to wait years before seeking treatment, and it’s possible that their functioning at home and at work has been compromised by the time they seek treatment. For many people, it’s a matter of pride. To feel shame or embarrassment about not feeling ‘normal’ is common, but in reality, mental illness affects millions of people worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 300 million people are affected by depression, and bipolar mood disorder affects 60 million globally.

In order to make it easier for those affected to seek help, they need to be aware that they require treatment. Unfortunately, addressing the issue in South Africa is problematic due to limited access to healthcare, particularly psychiatric services. Despite this, we can still do our best to reach out and create awareness about mental illness.

Get help

Electronic media like the internet and social networks such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram are readily available and accessible to many, although not all offer credible information. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) website is a wide-ranging, reputable resource with access to fact sheets, reading lists, helplines and support groups. Life Mental Health also has nine mental health facilities in four provinces offering various specialised services, including adolescent programmes, substance abuse treatment and psychogeriatric treatment, among others.

‘I think there are increasing numbers of young people seeking help. I believe I see more people with depression and anxiety today because we live with stress on a daily basis,’ says Dr Leverne Mountany, a psychiatrist at the Life Mental Health Unit based at Life Riverfield Lodge in Fourways.

Invisible illness

One reason mental illness is difficult to diagnose, and perhaps the reason the stigma still persists, is that it’s difficult to see, and often the symptoms mask the real problem.

‘Many people assume it’s depression if a person appears sad. The reality is that there are physiological symptoms (like changes in sleeping patterns, low energy levels, changes in appetite, concentration and memory) that are better markers for depression,’ says Dr Mountany.

‘It’s necessary to explain to patients, and to any audience you are educating about mental illness, that so much of feeling “normal” relies on the proper balance of chemicals in the brain. You can’t “pull yourself together” if a lack of chemicals is the problem.’ 

If someone is resistant to getting treatment, Dr Mountany suggests a gentle approach. ‘Plant the seed that they might need help. You can say things like: “I’m worried about you”, “It seems as if you are behaving differently”, “You seem tired most days, and “Is there anything you would like to talk about?”’

What about work?

Dr Mountany has been in practice for 16 years and has worked with the NGO Psychiatry M Powered to fight the stigma of mental illness. She says that even student and qualified doctors stigmatise psychiatry, and the feeling is that psychiatrists who have been diagnosed with a mental illness ought not to work. However, experts are of the opinion that once a person is successfully diagnosed and receives treatment (usually comprising of a combination of medication and psychotherapy), they can function well within their professional roles.

There are improvements in the workplace too. ‘It’s illegal to discriminate against employees on the grounds of mental or physical illness,’ says Dr Mountany. ‘And you don’t have to disclose in an interview or to your line manager that you suffer from depression or any other mental illness.’ However, if the obligations of the job you are interviewing for requires a certain state of mind, for example operating heavy machinery or working in a mine, you are expected to disclose all information relevant to a mental illness truthfully, should they arise.

The concern should always be whether an illness interferes with work performance, and if it does, it means the person needs to be assisted to gain access to the necessary treatment and support.

In the spotlight

Dr Mountany is convinced that one incredibly effective tool to raise awareness and detach the stigma is getting celebrities to speak out about their experiences. ‘When high-profile individuals speak out about their struggles, we all feel it’s okay too for us to battle these issues, psychiatrists included,’ says Dr Mountany.

She adds: ‘Educating South African youth on mental illness has not been well funded. Usually, a school will request a visit from a mental health organisation (very often they focus on substance, sexual or physical abuse) of their own accord,’ she says. ‘I believe that in order to make a difference, we need celebrities and community leaders to share their experiences, and for all schools and educators to start talking about mental illness.’

The information is shared on condition that readers will make their own determination, including seeking advice from a healthcare professional. E&OE. Life Healthcare Group Ltd does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage suffered by the reader as a result of the information provided.