On October 10th this year, the world commemorated World Mental Health Day.
There is, to date, only one representative study examining the prevalence of mental disorders in South Africa. It was conducted over a 12-month period in South Africa between 2003 and 2004 (read South African Stress and Health Study) as part of a world mental health study, funded by the World Health Organisation and published in 2009. The study’s findings concluded that 30.3% of adults in South Africa will have suffered from some form of mental disorder in a lifetime, and during the 12-month period, 16.5% currently suffered from common mental health disorders. Although the study excluded children and teenagers from the research, the findings do paint a perspective worth paying attention to, as society continues to come to grips with more severe realities like the Life Esidimeni tragedy.
Mayo Clinic medical experts describe mental illness as ‘a wide range of mental health conditions — disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behaviour.’ Common mental illnesses known to millions include mood disorders (depression, bipolar), anxiety disorders, eating disorders and addiction disorders.
The average human being will have a mental health concern on average 4-5 times in their lifetime. This may come in the form of physical trauma (like an injury, accident, disability), emotional & psychological trauma (e.g. death of a loved one, divorce, separation, domestic abuse), occupational (e.g. retrenchment, harassment, job loss, incapacity), financial (e.g. debt, loss of income, household losses) and many more. These life events have a significant impact on self, leading to a deterioration of personal stability.
This is also the very reason why as a global society, it has never been a constructive notion to prejudice against those going through mental health concerns or illness. It can and does, affect everyone. When a mental health concern becomes a mental illness, it is diagnosed when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent disruption to the person’s ability to cope, resulting in a negative impact on their ability to function.
Diagnosis, treatment, support and understanding of transient versus pathological mental conditions remains the cornerstone of fully tackling this often taboo topic.
Mental illnesses come with a debilitating stigma in most societies, mainly due to the lack of understanding on how to approach or support someone going through a mental illness or disorder. The conversation has, until recently often received little media coverage, prompting an open and contentious debate if we are complicit in the deterioration of our loved ones or neighbour’s health.
There are a multitude of treatment modalities to combat the effects of mental health concerns and mental illnesses. The most constructive of these is awareness. With the dawn of the digital era came a universe of accessible information, forums, support groups (e.g. SADAG) and helplines. It starts with the conversations we are having as individuals, colleagues, parents, families. Watching someone in any distress is never easy nor comfortable, but that should never delay the urgent need to guide and support them to seeking the appropriate help. The global conversation sparked in the recent months has afforded us all a momentum to de-clutter our attitudes about subjects like mental illness and I hope, as scientists and citizens alike, we will carry the torch forward through informed advocacy, authentic engagement and necessary support networks for those affected, at the workplace and at home.
Because, just like all other forms of health conditions, mental health matters.