OPINION | When I is replaced by We, illness becomes wellness

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An African proverb says “Twigs in a bundle are unbreakable”. That’s how we should approach this year’s World Mental Health Day on Sunday, 10 October.

A single twig can snap easily, but together we are so much stronger. Put differently: When “I” is replaced by “we”, illness becomes wellness.

The Covid-19-pandemic has had - still has - a major impact on mental health. Those with pre-existing illnesses could not access healthcare, as normal healthcare services were severely disrupted.

The burden of new cases has now exacerbated that need for help. Added to this is how severely under-resourced mental healthcare already is.

The climate crisis also causes a growing toll on the mental health of the youth.

“Eco-anxiety” - the “chronic fear of environmental doom” - is not yet a diagnosable condition, but it is increasing, and has a “disproportionate” impact on the youth. A 2020 survey of child psychiatrists in England showed that 57% are seeing children and young people who are distressed about the climate crisis.

Still, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), during this year’s World Health Assembly in May there was cause for optimism, as the need “to scale up quality mental health services at all levels” was recognised.

The WHO has also developed new material to take care of one’s own mental health and assist others with accessible information on depression and suicide, depression in children, during the teens and twenties, for seniors, and during pregnancy.

This year’s theme focuses on health “beyond the physical”, while the struggle to fight the coronavirus continues, says the World Federation of Mental Health (WFMH).

In a society that is becoming increasingly polarised, the wealthy are becoming astronomically wealthier and abusing loopholes, as the Pandora Papers recently unveiled.

According to WFMH statistics, between 75% and 95% of people with mental disorders in low- and middle-income countries cannot access mental health care, while access in high income countries “is not much better”.

Fortunately, mental health is being normalised and humanised thanks to sportspeople like Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles speaking up. Celebrities are also adding their voices, like Oprah Winfrey, Lady Gaga and Prince Harry, as in a new series, The Me You Can’t See.

We still have a long way to go, though. According to research it can take up to 15 years before treatments based on empirical studies are accessible to those in need.

Because of stigma and discrimination, mental ill-health does not only affect one’s physical and mental health, but also impacts on educational opportunities and job prospects.

That is why the WMHF says everyone has a role to play to ensure that those living with mental ill-health “are fully integrated in all aspects of life”.

When the WFMH was founded in 1948, it was after another crisis: that of the Second World War.

Thanks to collaborations with the WHO, UN and UNESCO a new beginning could be made. “We are again in the midst of another global crisis that is resulting in widening health, economic and social inequalities,” says the WFMH. That is why this year’s campaign is an opportunity “to come together and act together”.

As Professor Gabriel Ivbijaro, WFMH Secretary-General, says: “Be a partner, be an advocate.”

Each of us can. In South Africa all of October is Mental Health Awareness Month. Globally it is celebrated with panel discussions and other activities.

According to the UN the pandemic has caused “a significant decline in mental health and healthy habits”, which means everyone needs to learn anew how to take care of ourselves. Also bear in mind that children as young as four are being treated for stress and anxiety.

SADAG, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group, estimates that between 8 and 11% of children and teenagers suffer from some form of anxiety. Fortunately, tips and tools on how to cope with anxious children are available online.

Science is also making great progress. Just recently someone suffering from severe depression has been successfully treated with a brain implant, described as a “stunning advance”.

The implant works by detecting patterns of activity in the brain linked to depression and automatically interrupting them “through tiny pulses of electrical stimulation”.

And then there is self-therapy that can be described as taking it - literally - one step further - such as well-known journalist and TV presenter Erns Grundling. He will be running his first ever marathon next Sunday on 17 October in the Cape Town Marathon to raise awareness of mental health.

While walking the Spanish Camino in 2015, he learned one can “always go further than you think”. He found the same applies to jogging. And that led to the possibility of running a marathon.

Knowing the “black dog” intimately, he is doing it to raise awareness of mental health. “It is vital that the silence about depression is broken and that there is greater awareness of it as a biological disease, such as diabetes.” Erns is aiming to raise the distance of a marathon, 42,2 km, for the Ithemba Foundation in rand: R42 200.

Although the thought of 42.2 km does make him nervous, “the knowledge that this effort can make a modest contribution to mental health, which in these challenging times is hugely under siege for millions of people, motivates me every step of the way”. Literally.

Not that all of us should start running marathons. But, indeed, if I is replaced with we, illness becomes wellness. Especially in our month of HOPEtober.

*Lizette Rabe is professor at Stellenbosch University and a mental health advocate.

For help and information:

Lifeline 24-hour crisis line: 0861 322 322

Find a psychologist or psychiatrist close to you.

SADAG: 24-hour helpline: 0800 456 789, 0800 567 567, or sms 31393.

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