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World Bipolar Day: March 30

11 Apr 2018

Up the awareness, reduce the stigma – you can make a difference

A few years ago, the Sunday Times conducted a special investigation on the state of mental health in South Africa. What the investigation revealed was that around one third of all South Africans have a mental illness and up to 75% of them will not get any kind of help. These are sobering statistics and should be a wake-up call for all of us. Mental illness has always been a hidden societal issue because of the stigma with which it is associated. Many people are simply afraid to get help and seek treatment because they are afraid of what other people will think. Being labelled as ‘crazy’, ‘insane’, or ‘weird’ makes it incredibly difficult for those trying to deal with their conditions.

There are more than 17 million people in South Africa who are dealing with depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and schizophrenia. Yet despite this alarmingly high number, the South African government barely spends any money on mental healthcare. This means that for those seeking treatment in state-funded clinics and hospitals, their chances of getting adequate care and receiving proper treatment are tragically low. For example, only 1% of beds in psychiatric wards are reserved for children or adolescent and there is a massive shortage of staff, like psychiatrists and nurses, in specialised state hospitals.

Truth be told, those with mental illnesses are shunned by society. People, for the most part, tend to have very little sympathy for them and choose to dismiss their illness by saying things like, ‘it’s all in your head’ or ‘just get over it and choose to be happy’. Mental illnesses, just like all other illnesses affecting the body, cannot be dismissed or downplayed: the symptoms are real, the brain is affected by chemical imbalances, and the consequences without treatment are usually severe.

South Africa has an incredibly long way to go in terms of providing adequate psychiatric care to patients. Currently, most psychologists and psychiatrists in South Africa opt to work in the private sector where there are more resources and pay is higher, and for those who can afford medical aid or have the financial resources, treatment in the private sector is extremely expensive and psychiatrist, psychologist, and hospital bills can add up quickly.

However, while large-scale solutions may seem like an insurmountable challenge at this point in time, there is always hope in the form of smaller-scale solutions. Firstly, World Bipolar Day took place on the 30 March. It is an important initiative organised by numerous global organisations to promote awareness about the disorder and fight the stigma. Secondly, mental disorders can be treated and managed. While there may be no cure, treatment regimens in the form of various medications (which can be available in generic form and therefore cheaper) and psychological therapy are very effective when it comes to managing mental disorders. And lastly, all it takes is a little bit of sympathy, compassion, and support to help those who are struggling and trying to cope.

If you know of someone who has a mental disorder, here are a few small things you can do for encouragement and support: Be compassionate and simply listen. Allow the person to talk. Try not to give generic advice or dismiss how he/she may be feeling.

If the person is contemplating suicide, you need to take action and contact a professional who can get involved. No matter what, suicide threats must always be taken seriously. Never downplay the seriousness of it and never tell the person that he/she is simply ‘seeking attention’ by threatening suicide.

Educate yourself. Visit websites, like the one on World Bipolar Day, so that you can gain a bit more insight into how the disorder works.

Use phrases such as, ‘I know you have a real illness and this is why you are feeling the way you do. There is nothing to be ashamed of’ or ‘Tell me what I can do in this moment to help you’. At all costs, avoid things like, ‘We all go through times like this. Just snap out of it and stop worrying’ and ‘You don’t look sick, I think you’re faking it’. Mental illnesses are real – they are as real as any other illnesses familiar to you.

Recommend useful tools that can help the person. For example, there are thousands of health apps available on smartphone app stores that are designed specifically for mental illnesses. Some apps offer psychological advice, others have mindfulness activities, some function as medication reminders. For example, a good app to recommend to someone is MyTherapy because it functions as a medication reminder, health diary, and symptom/mood tracker; which all serve to help those with mental illnesses manage their conditions more effectively. Taking medication (and taking it strictly and responsibly, as prescribed) is an essential part of treating mental disorders, so medication reminder apps, like MyTherapy, can be a helpful, supportive tool in this regard.

It cannot be denied that mental health is being terribly (and dangerously) neglected in South Africa and Africa as a whole. While there has been increased attention given to mental health issues globally thanks to social media and various initiatives, mental health is still not receiving the respect and attention it deserves. The good thing is that small, little acts of kindness can go a long way in helping those with a mental disorder. Help fight the stigma. Educate yourselves and others about various mental illnesses. Offer support, encouragement, and help when you can. There is no shame in being sick, right? So why should it be any different with having a mental illness?

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