In the wake of the tragic passing of South African award-winning actress Shoki Mokgapa, conversations around mental health are taking place all over social media, again—just as the nation was recovering from the shock of the passing of renowned cardiologist Professor Bongani Mayosi. This is a conversation that has been gaining momentum over the years as we have lost many to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety—conditions that are very common but seldom understood. The lack of awareness has led to stigma, which makes it very difficult for the afflicted ones to reach out and get the help they so desperately need.

Anyone who struggles with depression and anxiety will tell you that the battle is excruciatingly lonely. This loneliness, along with the shame that accompanies mental illness, increases the likelihood of suicide, self-harm, and substance abuse. Those who have never had to deal with mental illness will never understand the extent to which these conditions affect one’s ability to function optimally and their general quality of life. For those who have depression or anxiety, daily tasks such as showering, preparing meals and going to work—tasks many perform without much thought—become arduous and exhausting, resulting in feelings of worthlessness and inadequacy. By educating yourself, you will be able to help destigmatise mental illness. 

 

What is Depression?

Depression is a condition that is caused by chemical imbalances in the brain and traumatic experiences such as the loss of a loved one, emotional and sexual abuse, and a troubled childhood. Depression is more than sadness; symptoms include feelings of worthlessness, emptiness, hopelessness, chronic fatigue, and suicidality. According to psychologist Zamo Mbele, the illness is diagnosed when an individual displays the aforementioned symptoms for at least two weeks, and it can last for months and even years.

Unfortunately, those who have depression are told to “snap out of it” or “just think positive,” while these statements may be coming from a sincere place, they add to the distress felt by someone who is depressed. Depression isn’t something that can be taken away by positive thinking; it’s not that simple. Interventions such as psychotherapy and medication alleviate the symptoms of depression, making it easier for someone to navigate everyday life.

 

 

What is Anxiety?

We all get worried from time to time—looming deadlines and unpaid bills take their toll on us, causing overwhelming stress. Anxiety, however, is a bigger beast that can come out of nowhere and wreak havoc in a person's mind; it too leads to substance abuse and suicidal ideations.

According to the South African Anxiety and Depression Group (SADAG), “everyone experiences anxiety as a normal reaction to threatening, dangerous, uncertain, or important situations. Some anxiety can enhance people's function, motivation, and productivity, such as the person who works well under pressure. People with Generalised Anxiety Disorder (GAD) experience severe anxiety, which is excessive, chronic, and typically interferes with their ability to function in normal daily activities. Generalised Anxiety is distinguished from phobia because it is not triggered by a specific object or situation.”

Symptoms of anxiety include:

  • Excessive anxiety and worry for a large portion of the day
  • Difficulty controlling your worry
  • Difficulties functioning at work or at school
  • Constantly feeling on the edge
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Difficulty concentrating or mind going blank
  • Irritability
  • Muscle tension
  • Sleep disturbance (difficulty falling or staying asleep)

 

How Do I Help a Loved One?

The first and most important thing to do is encourage them to seek professional help; they can consult their GP and ask them for a referral to a psychologist and, if it is needed, a psychiatrist.

It would also be beneficial to research your loved one’s condition, there are many resources online and there are great clips on YouTube. You can also ask your loved one to explain their internal experience as best as they can. The most important thing you can do is to try creating a safe space for your loved one to be vulnerable and real. You can also ask your loved one for permission to speak to their therapist so as to understand what they are going through, maybe even offer to attend a session with them, if they are comfortable with that. There are also support groups for loved ones of those who are afflicted.

Having said all of the above, it is not your responsibility to “fix” your loved one—you are in no way equipped to do that. Try being there as best as you can and don’t be afraid to say, “I don’t know what to say but I’m here to listen.”

 

If you are in crisis, or you have a loved one who is, please contact the numbers below.

Akeso Psychiatric Response Unit 24 Hour

0861 435 787

 

Suicide Crisis Line

0800 567 567

 

SADAG Mental Health Line

011 234 4837