World Mental Health Day a time to address mental health stigma in SA

World Mental Health Day, observed on 10 October 2023, offers us all a time to address mental health stigma as a growing body of evidence suggests that the incidence of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, is on the rise in South Africa.

The fact that only a small group of those suffering with these issues seek treatment is particularly concerning.

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Suffering in silence

Stigmatisation and misconceptions around mental health often prevent individuals from seeking help. As a result, many suffer in silence.

Improving social awareness and promoting educational drives can go a long way in tackling this major public health concern, believes Dr Thabo Mogotlane, a specialist psychiatrist at Mediclinic Legae.

Dr Thabo Mogotlane explains that mental illness is simply a disease of the brain. “It therefore needs to be viewed in the same light as conditions affecting other major organs like the heart or lungs.”

The brain is as much a part of the human anatomy as any other organ and sometimes, medical intervention is a necessary part of treatment. We need to equate mental health with physical health and to normalise getting the appropriate treatment, just as we would treat any other illness.”

Dr Mogotlane is the resident psychiatrist at Mediclinic Legae in Mabopane, Pretoria. The facility assists members of the surrounding community at its specialist Mental Health Services unit.

For Dr Mogotlane and his team, providing these services to low-income populations is of particular importance, given the pressing need for greater access to mental health treatment within outlying communities.

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Mental health facts and figures

In comparison to the rest of the world, South Africa sees relatively higher volumes of people suffering from depression, with 5% of the population being affected – 1.2% higher than the average global rate according to the World Health Organization.

Medical aid schemes have identified a notable increase in members accessing mental health services with approximately 54 000 annual admissions to mental health facilities. These schemes also reported a higher spend on mental health, with a proportionally large number of claims relating to the treatment of anxiety and depression.

The upsurge in mental health disorders represents not only a significant social ill, but also has a far-reaching economic impact.

For Dewald de Lange, General Manager: Mental Health Services for Mediclinic Southern Africa, these figures are indicative of a state of mental health decline – an issue of national importance.

The pandemic years brought mental health issues into stark focus, particularly in workplaces. Unfortunately, there is still much work needed to end the stigmatisation of mental health issues and educate the population on how medical intervention can make a meaningful difference.”

According to de Lange, the first step for individuals suffering from conditions such as anxiety and depression is to move past the fear of judgment and shame and gain access to resources that can support them in their mental health journeys.

“There are many private and public resources available. Tapping into them relies on the individual’s ability to reach out and ask for help.”

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Mental health support and resources

There is currently a large network of private psychiatrists, psychologists and facilities that can provide individuals with assistance.

For people who have medical aid, mental health treatment is covered as a prescribed minimum benefit on most plans. Psychiatrists sometimes have fairly long waiting lists, but a general practitioner has the expertise needed to help anyone make a start in the right direction.

“It’s important for both men and women to have equal access to mental health treatment. The unfortunate reality is that even with greater awareness around these issues, many men still avoid seeking help for fear of ridicule,” says de Lange.

“In this regard, educational programmes that address stigma across every level of society play a pivotal role in countering misinformation.

In light of World Mental Health Day on 10 October, Dr Mogotlane encourages South Africans to: “Embrace the power of self-awareness and take a proactive stance on mental health. Remember that seeking help is an act of courage, and together, we can illuminate the path to healing and resilience.”

Author: Pedro van Gaalen

When he’s not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He’s worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

When he's not writing about sport or health and fitness, Pedro is probably out training for his next marathon or ultra-marathon. He's worked as a fitness professional and as a marketing and comms expert. He now combines his passions in his role as managing editor at Fitness magazine.

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