How to support someone with mental health challenges

As we’ve already established, mental health is an area which is garnering more and more attention in our society. People who struggle with mental health conditions are finding it easier to speak out about it, while mental health advocates are normalizing the prevalence of such as well. However, we have not yet reached a point where we have ended the stigma towards mental health as a prevailing societal problem.

Until recently, mental health conditions were not taken as seriously as physical ailments. Depression, stress and anxiety have not been seen as serious issues which can affect someone’s functioning and well-being. As a result, often people do not know how to support those with mental health problems.

Things often said to people suffering from mental illness:

  • Just snap out of it
  • We’re all crazy!
  • Everyone feels like that
  • Just pray and you will be okay
  • It’s just in your head

Such comments are invalidating, hurtful and ignorant. It is not as easy as praying or thinking yourself out of a mental illness. It is not a choice and we should not be belittling people’s experiences.

Instead what we should be doing is:

  • Listening and being supportive
  • Not judging
  • Asking how we can help them
  • Being patient
  • Reaching out whenever you can
  • Empathizing
  • Referring them to resources which can help

Our role as members of society should be to validate people’s experiences, support those who need us and ensure that they receive the help that they need. A listening ear and a few comforting words can go a long way for someone who feels alone in their internal, emotional struggles.

For more information on mental health conditions and helpful resources, visit www.sadag.org.za

Different Mental Health Issues

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) 16.5% of the adult population in South Africa suffer from a mental illness. All these people are susceptible to experiencing a form of mental health issue at one point or another.

So what are mental health issues? In a country with ongoing socio-economic challenges, poverty, the HIV/AIDS pandemic and traumatic circumstances (amongst other matters), South Africans tend to suffer from a variety of mental health challenges, from childhood to late adulthood. This is regardless of race, age, socio-economic status or religion.

Some people are born with a predisposition to develop a mental health condition (e.g. if it runs in the family). However, a lot of the time, life challenges and environmental factors can also contribute.  The day-to-day adult can be affected by high levels of stress, which can lead to depression or anxiety. For example, someone who has a demanding job and struggles with supporting their family financially can find themselves being affected by this both mentally and emotionally. This can lead to problems with eating, sleeping, mood and concentration. On another extreme there are many children who have been orphaned due to HIV/AIDS or those who lived through our traumatic political history. All these people are susceptible to experiencing a form of mental health issue at one or another.

Mental health conditions vary from childhood disorders (e.g. learning disorders) and cognitive disorders (e.g. dementia) to mood disorders (e.g. depression), substance-related disorders (e.g. substance dependence) and psychotic disorders (e.g. schizophrenia). There are also mental disorders which affect how we see ourselves, those which apply to how we eat and sleep and those which explain how we relate to other people. This is why it is important to consult with a professional who can assist you to figure out what could be going with yourself or with a loved one. Nursing sisters, social workers, registered counsellors, medical doctors, psychologists and psychiatrists are all in a position to assist you or refer you to someone who can.

The only way we can end the stigma towards mental illness is by educating ourselves, speaking about it, reaching out and helping others. We can no longer live in a society where such a serious issue is hidden in the depths of our communities. You can be a mental health advocate simply by informing yourself and teaching others!

Understanding Mental Health

“Mental health” refers to the state of our psychological (head) and emotional (heart) well-being. Physical health refers to our bodies and we usually know we are unwell when we start experiencing certain symptoms – a headache, a fever, low energy levels or an unfamiliar rash. However, with mental health issues, there are no such “obvious” symptoms. This is what makes mental health issues so difficult to understand for many people. 

While some mental conditions have physical symptoms too (e.g. changes in sleeping patterns and appetite), it is the psychological and emotional difficulties which are “hidden” and therefore difficult to pick up. It can also be difficult for someone experiencing such symptoms to describe what they actually feel like. Someone with depression can be assumed to just feel “sad” however, the actual internal experience is much more intense than the sadness we all feel at certain times.

The truth is that mental health applies to everyone – men and women; young and old; wealthy and disadvantaged. No one is immune to a mental health condition. There are instances where some people are at a higher prevalence of developing a condition at some point (e.g. due to family history or an environmental circumstance), however many people may experience mood disorders, trauma reactions and substance-related disorders without any obvious contributing factors.

As a society, we are only now becoming more and more exposed to the reality of mental health conditions and challenges. In the past, people used to keep their mental health struggles to themselves – pretending that they were okay and would struggle internally. However, as time has gone on we are becoming more and more open about the prevalence of psychological disorders and how they affect our daily lives. It is important to end the stigma around mental illnesses so we can ensure that people access the assistance that they need.

Mental health practitioners, such as psychiatrists, psychologists and social workers, are professionals who assist individuals who may be struggling with a mental condition. Upon consultation they are able to determine the best management of the condition – which could be medication, psychotherapy, skills development or environmental changes. Either way, seeing a professional allows people to express themselves, describe their symptoms and work out a plan to deal with the issue.

It is also important for us to be supportive to those who are struggling. We need to be open to listening to what someone has to say; advise them of where they can get assistance; and check in to see if they are sticking to their treatment plan. To end the stigma we need to make mental illness less taboo and more normalised, so that we can heal as a nation and as a society.