OPINION: Let's move for mental health

  • October is Mental Health Awareness month in South Africa
  • The Covid-19 pandemic has had an impact on mental health
  • Stigma, discrimination and human rights abuses related to mental ill-health are widespread

“Move for mental health: let’s invest” is this year’s slogan for the mental health awareness campaign of the World Health Organization (WHO).

In the words of Doctor Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General, and by now a household name with his TV updates on the pandemic, it is an opportunity “for the world to come together and begin redressing the historic neglect of mental health”. 

With today the first day of October, it means you have all of October to make a difference: Talk the talk and walk the walk regarding the raising of mental health awareness.

And with spring now really sprung, it’s also time for you to come out of this terrible Covid-19 winter slumber.

A new beginning

Make a new beginning by contributing to an overall healthier environment, especially under these so taxing circumstances. 

In South Africa, for the first time last year, the whole month of October was declared as Mental Health Awareness Month to emphasise the importance of mental health.

Already almost thirty years ago 10 October has been declared by the WHO as World Mental Health Awareness Day.

This year, particularly, the WHO is calling “for a massive scale-up” in investment in mental health.

Encouraging public participation

Its “Move for mental health: let’s invest” campaign is also meant to encourage public participation. 

According to Ghebreyesus the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic on people’s mental well-being can already be seen – and, says he, “this is just the beginning”.

He stressed that unless “serious commitments to scale up investment in mental health” are made urgently, the health, social and economic consequences will be “far-reaching”.

Indeed, with the effect the pandemic has on so many levels – even the flourishing of conspiracy theories – it is no wonder us humans are doubling up under the burden.

Which means that amidst the Covid-19 pandemic the raging second pandemic, that of mental ill-health, must be addressed urgently.

A suffering nation

While worldwide there have already been protests against governments, in South Africa the total disregard and disrespect for the severity of the pandemic, as seen in the stealing and looting of budgets made available to support an already stressed health care environment, impacted severely on the national mood.

The nation is suffering: From grieving for lost loved ones, to losing jobs, experiencing pay-cuts, and fearing for the financial future of our families and our country.

All of us are experiencing insecurities and loneliness trying to live – survive – through a never foreseen period in our lives. 

But that is why October as Mental Health Awareness Month could not come a second too early.

We now need to attend to this second pandemic, especially because it is a silent one.

South Africa’s National Mental Health Awareness Month was declared “with the objective of not only educating the public about mental health, but also to reduce the stigma and discrimination that people with mental illness are often subjected to”.

A real threat

With Covid a very real threat to every aspect of our existence, it is more important than ever before to realise what the pandemic’s psychological fall-out means.

On its website, Government stresses that mental health problems are the result of a complex interplay between biological, psychological, social and environmental factors.

And yes, 2020 as the Year of Covid, so far, has provided the most fertile ground for mental ill-health to develop.

According to the WHO mental health is one of the most neglected areas of public health.

Close to 1 billion people are living with a mental disorder and 3 million die every year from the harmful use of alcohol.

Regarding mental disorders developing to a fatal stage, it is estimated that between 800 000 and a million people every year lose their lives to suicide. 

And now the WHO says “billions of people around the world have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic” with a clear impact on mental health.

Lack of access

Simultaneously, there is a huge lack of access to mental health services.

In low- and middle-income countries more than 75% of people with mental, neurological and substance abuse disorders receive no treatment at all.

And stigma, discrimination and human rights abuses related to mental ill-health are widespread.

Covid-19 has “further diminished” the already limited access to affordable mental health care.That is why the WHO is calling for this “massive scale-up” in investment in mental health.

We need to raise awareness to empower people to break the silence and the stigma, to recognise their symptoms, and to seek help and enable them to manage their disorder and live a quality life. 

With Covid-19 causing a disruption in the already under-resourced mental health care, a new and clear focus is needed, also to find “innovative ways to provide mental health care”.

Because of the scale of the problem, “the vast majority of mental health needs remain unaddressed”.

An existing under-investment

Before the pandemic there has already been a “chronic under-investment in mental health promotion, prevention and care”.

According to the WHO countries spend on average only 2% of their health budgets on mental health.

International development assistance for mental health has never exceeded 1% of all development assistance for health.

Yet, figures in the US showed that for every $1 invested in the treatment of common mental disorders such as depression and anxiety, there is a return of $5 in improved health and productivity. 

It’s clear that investment pays off, and abundantly so. But first there must be a will to invest. And that is where each of us can make that difference, or, as the WHO formulates it: “To do something life-affirming.”

Caring for one another

As individuals, we can ensure self-care to maintain our own mental balance, and we can support friends and family who are struggling.

As employees, especially under the Work-From-Home system, we need to care for one another.

Besides employee wellness programmes, we should ensure to keep in touch with one another outside of online meetings.

And yes, governments need to commit much more to establish mental health services. But what can you do to “move for mental health”?

Well, you can participate in the annual Hope Hike and Hope Bike. This year the event is virtual, which means you can just step outside your front door where ever you are and “move for mental health”.

The Hope Hike, also the Hope Bike for mountain bike enthusiasts, is coming Sunday, 4 October, which means you have all of October to spread the word of hope.

It is organised by the Ithemba Foundation (ithemba means hope), a non-profit with two public benefit goals, namely raising awareness of mental health, specifically depression and related diseases such as anxiety disorders, and funding research. 

So become an Ambassador of Hope, and most importantly, make a difference. And always remember, in the words of Barack Obama: “To anyone out there who’s hurting – it’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. It’s a sign of strength.”

Lizette Rabe, professor at Stellenbosch University, founded the Ithemba Foundation. The 2020 Hope Hike and Hope Bike, Ithemba's annual awareness raising event in October as Mental Health Awareness Month, will be a virtual event, which menas anyone, anywhere, can make a difference. 
Image credit: Kristina Tripkovic, Unsplash
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