Intle Ntsinde | 27 September 2017 

In South Africa, one in three people has a mental illness, yet 80% of the people living with mental illnesses are not getting treatment. This is according to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). An organization that seeks to create awareness about mental health to encourage people who are struggling with mental illnesses together with those that are unsure to seek help, treatment and support.

What exactly is it that we mean when we talk about mental illnesses and mental health? Let’s start with mental health. Mental Health is a state of well-being in which the individual realizes his/her own abilities, can cope with the normal stresses of life and work productively and fruitfully. Mental health is not happiness 24/7 but being mentally healthy means that one can engage in productive activities, fulfilling relationships and can adapt, change and cope with difficult situations and stress.

When mentally well we are flexible and able to problem solve. When mentally unwell we do the exact opposite. We ‘run away’ from our problems and we lose the flexibility. Mental illness is a term used to describe changes that can happen to us when we are not well mentally. The National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) states that mental illnesses are chronic disruptions in the neural circuits of the brain. These disrupted neural circuits affect the functioning of the brain and dramatically change a person’s moods, how they think, feel, act and interpret life events. Memory loss, lack of concentration, difficulty sleeping, loss of interest in pleasure and previously enjoyable activities can also be caused by the change in the functioning of the brain. The disrupted neural circuits can be caused by biological or environmental factors or the combination of both for example genetics, traumatic events, stress, drugs & alcohol, lack of sleep etc.

Compared to 14 countries in the World Mental Health (WMH) Survey Initiative, South Africa is the second highest for substance abuse (13%), sixth highest for anxiety disorders (15.8%) and seventh highest for mood disorders at 9.8%. This explains why the latest mental health statistics in this country show that there are 23 ‘successful’ suicides and 230 attempted suicides every 24 hours and that 1 in 4 people in the workplace have been diagnosed with depression. These statistics further state that 1 in 4 female teens have attempted suicide once or more and that 31.5% teens have attempted suicide (SADAG). This is a sign that a lot of people need help and that there is a lot that needs to be done to help because even though there are no cures for mental illnesses, there are treatments available.

In hopes and attempts to #BreakTheStigma and to help create more awareness on mental illnesses, this article is the first of a series. With each article, I will go deeper into each mental illness, looking at how people cope/deal with the illness and where and how they can find help.