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IMPORTANT: It will be tempting, after reading this, to decide that you know someone who has a mental illness. Do not use any information from these pages to start diagnosing your friends and family members with mental illnesses. It is impossible to diagnose a mental illness without a proper medical professional – that means a clinical psychologist, a medical doctor, or a psychiatrist – identifying a mental disorder.
However, should you read something here that sounds familiar and you think it’s worth investigating, please contact your clinic and ask for an appointment with a clinical psychologist or a medical doctor to talk about your concerns.

For local referrals and some perspective, you can call the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) – https://www.sadag.org or 0800 456 789

Mental illness is real and manageable.

WHAT IS A MENTAL ILLNESS?

Mental illness is a disease or condition of the brain that affects emotions, behaviour, personality, and mood, causing distress to the person going through this experience. Unlike physical illness, that can be diagnosed with blood tests and scans, diagnosing a mental illness takes close collaboration from the patients and the different medical professionals. Being honest with your doctors is extremely important for them to make the correct diagnosis. Not all mental illnesses are necessarily chronic, and we will refer to these briefly. But as with all chronic conditions, those suffering from a chronic mental health conditions must take care of themselves holistically – by adhering to their medication regimens, managing their diet, exercising regularly, working on interpersonal relationships, and monitoring their mental state to identify ‘triggers’. Triggers are events or activities that can cause a person to become distressed.

Common mental conditions in South Africa

Many people in South Africa are familiar with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These are common in our country, which has high levels of poverty, inequality, unemployment, crime, gender-based violence and substance abuse. However, these are not necessarily CHRONIC mental conditions and with the right support and help, they can be managed.

WHAT IS A MENTAL ILLNESS?

Chronic-Mental-Illness-adherence

Mental illness is a disease or condition of the brain that affects emotions, behaviour, personality, and mood, causing distress to the person going through this experience. Unlike physical illness, that can be diagnosed with blood tests and scans, diagnosing a mental illness takes close collaboration from the patients and the different medical professionals. Being honest with your doctors is extremely important for them to make the correct diagnosis. Not all mental illnesses are necessarily chronic, and we will refer to these briefly. But as with all chronic conditions, those suffering from a chronic mental health conditions must take care of themselves holistically – by adhering to their medication regimens, managing their diet, exercising regularly, working on interpersonal relationships, and monitoring their mental state to identify ‘triggers’. Triggers are events or activities that can cause a person to become distressed.

Common mental conditions in South Africa

Many people in South Africa are familiar with anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). These are common in our country, which has high levels of poverty, inequality, unemployment, crime, gender-based violence and substance abuse. However, these are not necessarily CHRONIC mental conditions and with the right support and help, they can be managed.

Types of treatment can include:

  • Medication: This can be prescribed by a psychiatrist or a GP.

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Learning how to change your negative thinking patterns.
  • Exercise: Including light exercise like walking and cycling, as well as extreme exercise such as vigorous swimming and marathon running.
  • Counselling: Talking to a trained professional, like a counsellor or psychologist. Find someone who you are comfortable with, in a language you prefer.
  • Peer support groups: Talking to other people who are experiencing the same thoughts and feelings as you are, can be very powerful.
  • A combination of these interventions, including consulting a clinical psychologist, is needed.

PTSD, anxiety and depression can be on-again-off-again, i.e. sometimes you can feel fine and sometimes something can trigger you and send you into a depression or cause a panic attack. Sometimes, people can be fully healed from past trauma and anxiety. Many people who experience these disorders can heal through using the above mentioned treatment methods, and may never need treatment again. This means that they do not have chronic mental health disorders. However, some people can struggle with especially anxiety and depression all their lives, in which cases the mental disorders are chronic.

Types of treatment can include:

Chronic-Mental-Illness-coping-strategy
  • Medication: This can be prescribed by a psychiatrist or a GP.

  • Cognitive Behavioural Therapy: Learning how to change your negative thinking patterns.
  • Exercise: Including light exercise like walking and cycling, as well as extreme exercise such as vigorous swimming and marathon running.
  • Counselling: Talking to a trained professional, like a counsellor or psychologist. Find someone who you are comfortable with, in a language you prefer.
  • Peer support groups: Talking to other people who are experiencing the same thoughts and feelings as you are, can be very powerful.
  • A combination of these interventions, including consulting a clinical psychologist, is needed.

PTSD, anxiety and depression can be on-again-off-again, i.e. sometimes you can feel fine and sometimes something can trigger you and send you into a depression or cause a panic attack. Sometimes, people can be fully healed from past trauma and anxiety. Many people who experience these disorders can heal through using the above mentioned treatment methods, and may never need treatment again. This means that they do not have chronic mental health disorders. However, some people can struggle with especially anxiety and depression all their lives, in which cases the mental disorders are chronic.

So, then what is a chronic mental illness?

Some mental illnesses are hardwired into the brain, often in the womb before birth. Experts are not clear on any single cause of a chronic mental condition, but:

  • Adverse experiences while pregnant,
  • Traumatic experiences during childhood,
  • Poor lifestyle, and
  • Genetics

are generally accepted as the main factors affecting mental health development. Normally the cause is a combination of these factors. But do take note that some people can go through immense trauma and NOT develop a mental illness. It all depends on a combination of nature (genetics) and nurture (life experiences).

Some possible causes of mental illness:

  • Stress (stemming from peer pressure, work demands, financial insecurity, grief, social isolation or conflict)
  • Diagnosis of a chronic illness, e.g. cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, HIV
  • Underlying mental conditions, e.g. schizophrenia
  • Neurological conditions affecting the brain, e.g. head injury, trauma

CHRONIC MENTAL ILLNESSES are serious, and require lifelong management. Mental illnesses will not heal on their own, cannot be outgrown and if not managed often result in substance abuse – because the patient knows something is wrong and tries to ‘fix’ how they feel (this is also called self-medicating).

The overlap of chronic mental illness with substance-abuse is a problem because family members and authorities often focus on the substance abuse and the real cause is neglected. Even though substance use disorder is a mental illness all on its own, it is often caused by a different, underlying mental illness.

So, then what is a chronic mental illness?

Chronic-Mental-Illness-support

Some mental illnesses are hardwired into the brain, often in the womb before birth. Experts are not clear on any single cause of a chronic mental condition, but:

  • Adverse experiences while pregnant,
  • Traumatic experiences during childhood,
  • Poor lifestyle, and
  • Genetics

are generally accepted as the main factors affecting mental health development. Normally the cause is a combination of these factors. But do take note that some people can go through immense trauma and NOT develop a mental illness. It all depends on a combination of nature (genetics) and nurture (life experiences).

Some possible causes of mental illness:

  • Stress (stemming from peer pressure, work demands, financial insecurity, grief, social isolation or conflict)
  • Diagnosis of a chronic illness, e.g. cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, HIV
  • Underlying mental conditions, e.g. schizophrenia
  • Neurological conditions affecting the brain, e.g. head injury, trauma

CHRONIC MENTAL ILLNESSES are serious, and require lifelong management. Mental illnesses will not heal on their own, cannot be outgrown and if not managed often result in substance abuse – because the patient knows something is wrong and tries to ‘fix’ how they feel (this is also called self-medicating).

The overlap of chronic mental illness with substance-abuse is a problem because family members and authorities often focus on the substance abuse and the real cause is neglected. Even though substance use disorder is a mental illness all on its own, it is often caused by a different, underlying mental illness.

The link with substance-abuse

Substance abuse is a real issue because it often leads to crime, anti-social behaviour and breakdown in relationships, all of which further intensify the effects of the underlying mental condition. It can destroy families and lead to serious physical illness, and even death.

Sadly, South Africa has far too few facilities, trained personnel and institutions to adequately deal with the magnitude of our substance abuse dilemma – and many people with mental illness may die of an overdose, illnesses caused by substance use, suicide or through crime related accidents, without ever being diagnosed.

If you need advice or help with substance abuse, contact: SADAG or the South African National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence (SANCA): or WhatsApp 076 535 1701

The link with substance-abuse

Chronic-Mental-Illness-support-group

Substance abuse is a real issue because it often leads to crime, anti-social behaviour and breakdown in relationships, all of which further intensify the effects of the underlying mental condition. It can destroy families and lead to serious physical illness,