Mental illness is booming – and you have a role to play

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It’s important to offer support to people you know who are suffering from depression.
It’s important to offer support to people you know who are suffering from depression.
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Lockdown may have eased significantly since those harsh early months when the coronavirus first hit our shores, but the effects remain with us.

We still have restrictions in place, particularly regarding our movement and our ability to get together with friends and family. And we live in fear of the “second wave” of infections that are hitting other parts of the world.

Isolation and social distancing are taking their toll, and countries around the world have witnessed their impact on mental health.  

Not least here, where the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) reported receiving double the amount of calls about anxiety, stress, and depression than before the pandemic.

Read more | Column | Who takes care of your community's so-called "crazy" person

With or without Covid-19, mental illness is a serious business that has been neglected and remains underfunded and under-resourced in most countries.

“Close to one billion people globally have a mental disorder and anyone, anywhere, can be affected,” says the South African Federation for Mental Health.

“People with severe mental disorders tend to have a lifespan of 10-20 years shorter than the general population. At present, suicide is claiming the lives of close to 800,000 people every year – that is one person every 40 seconds – and it’s the second leading cause of death for young people aged 15-29 years.

“As a low-middle income country, South Africa faces shortcomings with the provision for mental health services for the majority of its citizens. It’s estimated that 75% of those who need mental health care services do not receive it.”

This means we all have a part to play in supporting people we know who are struggling with mental illness.

Drum speaks to Pretoria-based psychologist Moleboheng Diseko and Sadag about how we can make a difference in the lives of people suffering from depression.

Read more | Mental health: Are medicine shortages fuelling a shadow epidemic?

What you can do to help

Many people around us are suffering in silence or may not even be aware that their mental health is suffering.

When someone shows signs of depression, the first step as a supportive friend or family member is to encourage them to get professional help, Diseko says.

“It is important to encourage treatment without judgment because depression is not something that can go away on its own – it requires treatment. Encourage them to attend their sessions with their psychologist, as well as see their psychiatrist regularly.”

It helps to be able to recognise if someone is struggling.

“Being able to identify the symptoms of depression assists you in being able to identify when the person is having an episode, and it helps you to be aware of how the person is feeling and is being affected,” Diseko says.

“Sometimes people suffering from depression just need someone to listen to them without judgment."
Moleboheng Diseko

A vital part of taking care of someone suffering from depression is being able to spot a risk of suicide.

“Identifying suicide risk is being able to tell when the situation or the condition is worsening and when there is risk of suicide. Once you have made this identification, it is important to get them professional help.”

You need to really listen and try to understand what they are saying.

“Sometimes people suffering from depression just need someone to listen to them without judgment and without trying to give them solutions,” Diseko says. “They may simply need to offload and just being a good listener is a great service to them.”

Cassey Chambers, operations director at Sadag, agrees attentive listening and learning about mental health are two important aspects of support.

She says it’s also a good idea to let the person be part of life events and not treat them as children. And she adds that you shouldn’t try to force them to cheer up.

What to say to someone who is depressed

Sadag gives the following examples of what you might hear from someone who is depressed – and what you should and should not say to them.

“I’m all alone.”

Don’t say: “No you’re not! I’m sitting here with you right now. Doesn’t my caring about you mean anything?”

Do say: “I know that you’re feeling alone right now. Is there anything I can do to help? I’m just glad to be with you – together we’ll get through this lonely feeling.”

“Why bother? Life isn’t worth living. There’s no point in going on.”

Don’t say: “How can you think that? You have a great job and people who love you. You have everything to live for.”

Do say: “I know it feels that way to you right now, but I want you to know that you matter to me and you matter to others who love you. We’ll get through this hopeless feeling together.”

“I’m dragging everybody else down with me.”

Don’t say: “No you’re not! You see, I’m fine! I had a good day today. And besides I’m doing everything in the world to help you.”

Do say: “I know it feels that way to you right now, and yes, at times it is difficult for both of us – but remember we’ll get through this hopeless feeling together.”

“What would it be like if I wasn’t here anymore?”

Don’t say: “Don’t be silly – what’s wrong with you?”

Do say: “I would miss you terribly, as you’re very important to me. I want to grow old knowing you’re around. We’ll get through this together.”

“I’m expendable.”

Don’t say: “If you felt better about yourself, you wouldn’t say stupid things like that.”

Do say: “I know you’re feeling worthless right now, but we’ll get through this.”

“Nothing I do is any good. I’ll never amount to anything.”

Don’t say: “What are you saying? You’re a highly respected (engineer), you’re a good (father). You’re blowing everything out of proportion.”

Do say: “I know it’s upsetting when things don’t work out the way you want them to – it’s upsetting for me to! Failure feelings are really painful, but we’ll get through this together.”

“How long am I going to feel this way? It’s as if I’ll never get better.”

Don’t say: “Come on. Nothing lasts forever – you know better than that.”

Do say: “I know it’s scary to be in so much pain. Feelings come and go. We’ll get through this together.”

If you need any further information for you or a loved one, call Sadag on 0800 456 789 or 0800 567 567 or SMS 31393. They are open 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. Or visit their website:

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