OPINION | When the going gets tough, make sure you get going

You might not be a victim of the Covid-19 virus, but you can do something about its mental health fallout to support your own mental and physical health. With the coronavirus pandemic regarded as mainly a physical threat, governments are not addressing the invisible mental health pandemic.

But this is where you and I can be proactive and make a difference. With something as simple as exercise. Get into the habit of building a daily exercise routine. Especially under lockdown, we need to escape from that terrible (and also contagious) lethargy we've been experienced during this abnormal “new normal”.

Sky-high anxiety levels

Even though our country has moved to Level 2, remember places are opening-up to save the economy, not because it is safe. Carry on washing your hands, wear your mask, and keep a physical distance. To prevent a second wave, we now need to be even more vigilant.

Described as a surge in mental health problems, as you are reading this article, your own anxiety levels are probably sky-high. And you might feel totally out of control, with everything around you taking on a threatening hue. It’s the pandemic, your family’s health, the economy, politics, your finances, absolutely everything.

Studiesi have found that “social isolation, stress, unemployment, difficulties getting back to work, ongoing fatigue and financial difficulties could all give rise to mental health problems”. And that’s not only in Covid survivors, but also in those who were fortunate enough not to contract the virus. We all live in a time of extreme anxiety and uncertainty, and it is normal to feel out of control. But there is one thing you do have control over: Your body.

So get yourself into the habit of exercising, whether it is on an exercise bike in your lounge (from where you can still watch your favourite soapy); the outdoor gym in the park around the corner; a 30-minute walk around the neighbourhood; a session in a gym under Level 2 regulations; or trail running or cycling.

Fighting back

To prevent this minuscule virus from getting the better of your mental health, fight back with physical exercise to ensure a healthy body and mind. Professor Soraya Seedat,ii executive head of the department of psychiatry at Stellenbosch University emphasises that it “may be prudent” to rather overestimate the pandemic’s mental health consequences. Due to various lockdown-linked factors, such as isolation and loneliness, financial hardship and job insecurity, Seedat stresses that the pandemic might lead to new mental health cases in South Africa, alongside the existing ones.

According to Seedat, thirty months after the 2003 SARS outbreak – the 21st century’s first massive infectious disease, and related to Covid-19 – a third of survivors met criteria for a psychiatric disorder, a quarter for post-traumatic stress disorder, and approximately 16% for depressive disorders.

More than 50% of South Africa’s population lives below the poverty line, meaning they literally don't know where their next meal is coming from. Mental health in this sector must be prioritised if South Africa wants to achieve an all-round healthier population. In fact, if we are serious about #Build Back Better in a post-Covid era, this should be one of our most important goals.

Research has also shown that mood disorders where we feel a prisoner of our circumstances not only lead to even more severe mental ill-health, but indeed, can result in fatal actions, such as suicide. With suicidal ideation, the brain follows an involuntary spiral into self-destruction.

Mental health professionals have already warned that the effects of lockdown will lead to a serious mental health crisis, with “skyrocketing depression rates” and “increases in suicide”.iii A recent Sadag surveyiv shows that nearly half of its 1 214 respondents feel that finances were one of their main challenges and more than half indicated that anxiety and panic were major challenges.

According to Sadag’s operations director, Cassey Chambers, calls to their helpline have doubled during lockdown, “with hundreds more texts, emails and WhatsApp messages”. Also: “People who had a mental health issue before Covid-19, were negatively impacted, and those who didn’t have a mental health issue at that stage were triggered because of the additional stressors during lockdown.” An Australian survey indicated that there has been a 33% increase in self-harm among young people during lockdown.v

Cultivating hope

In the light of all these negatives, how can you make your brain work in a positive way? Well, one way is to start exercising. Your brain will automatically discharge the “feel good” hormones that will help you in the battle against negativity.

It is important to understand that mental ill-health involves real diseases. Depression, for instance, is not a matter of just “feeling down” and will not magically disappear by “just pulling yourself together”. Mental illnesses are biological illnesses, and, as with other medical conditions, require treatment. Awareness campaigns help to break the silence and the stigma, which means each of us can make a difference.

In October we will be observing South Africa’s Mental Health Awareness Month, with the World Health Organization’s Mental Health Awareness Day on 10 October – an opportunity to raise awareness and to break the silence and the stigma surrounding mental ill-health. One such awareness campaign is run by the non-profit Ithemba Foundation ("ithemba" means hope) with this year’s virtual Hope Hike and Hope Bike.

All in all, October is your opportunity to show that when the going gets tough, the tough get going. And don’t wait until then – start doing something now. Start "walking the walk" for your own mental health’s sake. And, yes, also "talk the talk" to break the stigma and the silence surrounding mental health.

Do your bit to build hope by raising awareness around the crucial aspect of mental health. Indeed, without mental health, there is no health. With the added burden of Covid-19, we can all be pro-active and not only do something about our own mental health, but also that of our community and society at large.

Don’t leave it to others to do something about our country’s mental health – you can make that difference. Most importantly, you can build hope amid an unforeseen physical pandemic that is causing an unseen, but just as severe, mental health pandemic.

It’s time to walk the walk and talk the talk!

For help:

Lifeline: 0861 322 322

SADAG helpline: 0800 567 567 or sms 31393

Mental Health Information Centre (MHIC): 021 938 9229 or email mhic@sun.ac.za.

Lizette Rabe is a professor at Stellenbosch University and founding director of the non-profit Ithemba Foundation (www.ithembafoundation.org.za, registration number 2012/171250/08; SARS PBO number: 930/048/019). Ithemba has two public health goals: to raise awareness of depression and related diseases as clinical, biological diseases and to support research. It organises the annual Hope Hike and Bike, this year a virtual event with ten fitness trackers to be won by posting your selfie. More information on https://www.entryninja.com/and click on the Hope Hike/Bike or contact ithembafoundation@mweb.co.za.

Image credit: Elsa Fourie

i. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/aug/14/sheer-fear-mental-health-impacts-of-covid-19-come-to-fore.

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