Health, Oct. 6, 2022, 11:42 a.m.



With South Africa being the lowest-ranked country based on mental wellbeing, Mental Health Awareness Month in October provides an ideal opportunity to intensify public education about this invisible illness.

writes Dr Nivisha Parag, Head of School: Healthcare Management Studies at Regent Business School 

Mental health affects the lives of individuals, families, co-workers and the community. It includes emotional, psychological and social well-being.  The World Health Organisation (WHO) says biopsychosocial, cultural, economic, political, and environmental factors, and community support play a vital role in determining a country’s morale.

Mental health stigma is a cluster of negative attitudes and beliefs that motivate the general public to fear, avoid and discriminate against people with mental illness, creating barriers to seeking help. In addition, other equally urgent health crises receive the bulk of healthcare resource allocations. 

The 2021 Mental State of the World report identified South Africa (SA) as the lowest-ranked country based on mental wellbeing. The study uses the Mental Health Quotient (MHQ), a snapshot of your self-perception along various dimensions of mental function that determine your mental wellbeing. Close to 12 000 South Africans were surveyed, comparing them to 223 087 people across the globe, and identified that we had the lowest MHQ of 46%. SA also has the highest percentage of people who are ‘distressed’ or ‘struggling’.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the intensity of the insidious mental health pandemic. The global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by 25% in 2021, and by a massive 36.4% in SA alone.  Even pre-Covid, one in six South Africans suffered from anxiety, depression, or substance abuse disorders, yet only 27% of sufferers ever receive treatment. The unimaginable grief, together with loneliness, fear of infection, bereavement and financial woes are major mental stressors. Among health workers, exhaustion has been a trigger for suicidal thinking. Major disruptions in life-saving services for mental health, including for suicide prevention, resulted in positive moves towards remote support platforms.

Mental disorders vary in severity, with the absence of physical symptoms driving the stigma.  Several African cultures deem individuals suffering from mental illnesses to be possessed by demons, experiencing figments of their imagination, or frankly mad. The disorders are characterized by some combination of abnormal thoughts, emotions, behaviour and relationships. Most of these disorders can be treated effectively, enabling sufferers to live normal, productive lives. 

Mental health problems have deleterious impacts on workplaces when poorly managed, through increased absenteeism, reduced productivity, and increased costs to both employers and employees. 

According to the South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH), work content and context factors contributing to mental health include, workload, tasks, roles, recognition and control, working conditions, leadership, communication and interpersonal relationships in the workplace.

Exemplary leadership is crucial to support employee wellness, reduce stigma in the workplace, and successfully sustain employee assistance efforts. A culture promoting awareness, connection, and transparency about mental health will reduce stigma in the workplace. This has positive returns, including increased productivity and retention, and decreased healthcare and disability costs to the employer. 

 The mental health of youth has dramatically worsened during the pandemic. Most children were forced into home-bound learning or none at all, and traditional support in schools, universities and workplaces had to be replaced by remote forms of care in an attempt to help young people. The bleak employment landscape is adding further risk of graduates experiencing mental illnesses. Safe environments must be provided for children and young people to share their feelings, be educated about mental health and self-care, and access to help must be prioritized, to strengthen the foundation for better mental health later in life. 

Take conscious control of your own mental health:

- Practice mindfulness – Pay attention to the present moment. Stop and breathe.
- Identify triggers and learn how to manage them better. Take control of your life – work balance. 
- Exercise. Take regular walks and move around at work. Meditation, breathing exercises and yoga are good relaxation techniques too. 
- Stay away from food triggers such as nicotine, sugar, caffeine and processed foods.
- Sleep well and be generous about the hours. 
- Start a journal – externalising helps clear your head and focus on solutions instead of problems.
- Learn something new or revisit an old hobby. 
- Limit screentime and avoid distressing news and social media lures. 

Maintain healthy relationships and meaningful engagements. Talk about your feelings regularly with people you love and trust. 
Join a wellness organisation, do good for others, be grateful and reap the positive rewards on your mental health.