Stigma and false stereotypes about mental illness not only make life more difficult for persons living with mental health conditions, they can also prevent others from accessing support when they need it.
“It is so important to talk about mental health because many South Africans have such mistaken ideas about what this means. Too often people have the very narrow idea that someone with a mental health condition is ‘crazy’, and these stereotypes need to be confronted,” says 30-year-old Amy Hand, who lives with bipolar disorder.
“These are conversations people need to have because mental health issues come in many forms and through better understanding, mental illness can be de-stigmatised. When people see I am ‘normal’ and that I am a person – not just a diagnosis – I believe this makes it easier for others to start opening up about their own mental health, so they too can seek help if they need it.”
Having experienced a breakdown, Hand attended a specialised inpatient programme at an Akeso mental healthcare facility. “I learnt so much about myself in the process, I realised that I am worth the effort of managing my condition and I have a lot to contribute,” she says.
“Reaching out for help with your mental health is not shameful, and it certainly is not a sign of weakness. If you are having difficulty coping, find the strength to talk about it before it becomes a bigger problem.”
Chantelle Thrupp-Snow, a mental health campaigner who lives with borderline personality disorder, says that mental health conditions are often not understood in the same way other physiological illnesses are.
“Just because I have a borderline personality disorder doesn’t mean I do not put my children and career first. It is a medical problem, an imbalance in the brain, and I manage it much like a diabetic manages their condition with insulin,” Thrupp-Snow adds.
She says that in addition to strictly adhering to her prescribed treatment, a support network who are informed about, and understanding of, her condition have been central to assisting her to maintain her good state of mental health.
“Seeking treatment is not self-indulgent or selfish. Remember, it’s not just for you: it’s for the people you love, the person or company you work for, the people who rely on you. It’s also about staying on treatment and proving wrong anyone who claims you can’t overcome the difficulties you’ve faced.”
The Akeso network of mental healthcare facilities recently launched a ‘note to self’ mental health campaign to mark World Mental Health Day on 10 October, aiming to address some of the misconceptions around mental health, and to promote understanding of these experiences.
All members of the public are invited to leave mental health ‘notes to self’ via the online platform. Contributors are not asked for their name, so all comments are anonymous.
This platform is open for submissions until 10 November, and the messages received from contributors are posted to a virtual message board where they can not only view their own notes but also read other contributors’ notes, and thereby gain fresh perspectives on mental health.
“Mental well-being is fundamental to our ability to thrive and realise our full potential, to think and relate to others, and perhaps most importantly, to earn a living and enjoy a meaningful productive life. Mental health is an integral and essential component of health; there is no health without mental health,” adds Dr Sandile Mhlongo, managing director of Akeso.
“If you are struggling to cope, or are concerned about a loved one’s mental health, we urge you to seek help from a professional near you to understand more about what might be happening and how you can address it. Often, that is the first step towards better mental health,” he says.
“Let’s make a conscious effort to speak up about mental health and try to empathise with those around us. Check in with your loved ones, your colleagues and friends, and reach out to someone if you are struggling. Together, we can change the views on mental health for the better.”