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Mental Health Stigma Attacked

By Staff Writer

October is Mental Health Awareness Month and was created to educate the public about mental health and reduce the stigma attached to mental illness. An estimated 400 million people worldwide suffer from mental or neurological disorders or from psychosocial problems.[1]

Mental Illness[2] is classified by a combination of abnormal thoughts, emotions, behaviour and relationships with others. Examples are schizophrenia, depression, intellectual disabilities and disorders due to substance abuse.  “Most of these disorders can be successfully treated, and mental illness is more common than we think, it can affect anyone at any time, and is treatable,” states Sally Baker, social worker and member of The South African Association of Social Workers in Private Practice (SAASWIPP).

Often an ideal treatment plan involves a broad range of strategies that can include a combination of treatments and help from a variety of professionals and importantly, change for the person struggling.  Says Baker: “As a social worker I am able to assist people identify the problem and challenges and help with a treatment plan. This could be as simple as introducing exercise, healthier eating habits and kinder, healthier, self-talk for some people.  Identifying and coping with emotions, trauma therapy, grief counselling, increasing effective family and community support are also beneficial for people struggling with a mental illness.” 

In South Africa we have high rates of poverty, hunger, and unemployment, which was intensified by the lockdown levels during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to Baker, these problems and many more are extremely stressful conditions to handle and they are bound to affect people’s mental health, wellbeing and ability to cope. “As a society, I don’t think we are sensitive to emotions, grief or trauma,” notes Baker. “Generally, I think we are an emotionally illiterate society that struggles to understand and express emotions in a healthy way. As a result, we struggle to support others in their emotions.”

Another mental illness that was highlighted during the pandemic was that of substance abuse. With the ban on the sale of cigarettes and alcohol, the full-frontal societal rebuttal was telling. According to Sharon Rosen, a member of SAASWIPP and a social worker with a Psychology Masters (Research) (Rau): “The ban is unlikely to have created addicts. And many abusers who were unable to get their drugs of choice over the period were lucky enough to give it up.  The addicts would more likely have found other ways to get their fix.  Either by cross addicting to substances that were available or by going to the black market. A guess is that there were addicts/alcoholics who went into withdrawals and either died or got very ill by not getting what their bodies had become addicted to. The back lash may indicate that more people are addicted than we think, but it also means that many people abuse substances.”

According to Rosen: “Many people use the term “addicted to” very loosely. Merely a craving for something.  But it is that and so much more.  It is an imbalance that occurs in the brain chemistry that results in obsessions and cravings that need to be fulfilled no matter what the consequences.”

Conversations around mental health are not just about dialogue. It has proven to be helpful when people share their experiences about overcoming and managing mental health challenges. Says Baker: “Their journey to health and a better life can inspire others to search for, do and take the help they need to get well. If people understand that treatment like medicine, therapy and intervention exists and is effective, it can help people to access help too.”

If anyone shows signs of mental illness or you need help, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) is Africa’s largest mental health support and advocacy group and is committed to quality counselling, outreach and capacity building work throughout South Africa. SADAG is also able to connect people to further resources.


[1]https://www.gov.za/MentalHealthAwarenessMonth2020#:~:text=The%20month%20of%20October%20has,illness%20are%20often%20subjected%20to.

[2] https://www.who.int/mental_health/management/en/

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