Mental illness: don’t suffer in silence

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mental illness

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Bronwyn Still, 48, with her depression medication in front of her. She has battled depression for years and attempted suicide several times. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

Johannesburg - When she was 18, in her first year at a teachers’ college, Bronwyn Still slit her wrists.

She was overweight and lonely, always felt sad and had no self-confidence.

However, since she did not know what it was nor how to address it, she over-ate. After a while, death seemed like a viable option.

When she was found with bleeding wrists, her mother – a nurse – cleaned her wounds, bandaged them and told her to perk up and carry on with her life because she was only 18 and had a lot to live for.

That was one of many suicide attempts that Bronwyn would make before she was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. Throughout tumultuous episodes in her life, Bronwyn managed to hold on to her teaching job, do an honours degree, get married twice, raise two children and run marathons.

She is one of the millions of South Africans who have a mental illness. According to the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), one in five South Africans has a mental health problem.

According to Dessy Tzoneva of Sadag, mental illnesses influence the psychological state of a person and affect how a person thinks, feels and behaves.

Depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder are just some of the ailments.

In SA, Tzoneva said, receiving adequate medical care was a major challenge to people with mental health problems because of financial constraints. While there is a shortage of psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, psychologists and social workers throughout the world, the situation was particularly bad in SA.

But it is not only the shortage of resources; there is also the stigma attached to having a mental illness and the discrimination against patients and their families.

“A South African public survey showed that most people considered mental illnesses to be related to either stress or a lack of willpower.

“People are afraid to let others know that they have been diagnosed with or are being treated for such a condition. Some are even hesitant to go for help because their neighbours will find out”.

“(As a result) many people do suffer in silence and believe they are weak and just need to toughen up – this is completely incorrect. Mental illness is a medical illness like diabetes or asthma and treatment is necessary, often including medication and psychotherapy.”

Tzenova said children also had mental health problems and it was important for parents to seek help quickly if they were worried about their children’s emotions, behaviours and thoughts.

Bronwyn’s story

Since she was a teenager, Bronwyn Still, 48, knew that something was wrong with her but she did not know what it was exactly.

She was always sad and a loner. To make herself feel better or be happy she turned to comfort eating. This did not help, because she became overweight. The feeling of unhappiness remained.

As she got worse, she thought that death was her only option.

So, when she returned from college one day, she locked her bedroom. Her windows had burglar bars and she knew no one would be able to come in. She took a blade and slit one wrist.

After slitting the other wrist, she passed out.

When her family later returned, they were surprised to find the house empty and her room locked. They could not get in through the window, so they got someone to break the door. They found her, drenched in blood and unconscious.

Bronwyn and her sister Heather, believe that her mother, who was a nurse, knew at the time that Bronwyn could be suffering from a mental illness.

But she did not want to admit this because of the stigma, and rather chose to be in denial about the situation.

Besides the overeating, Bronwyn also started abusing alcohol to numb her pain.

More suicide attempts followed. After each one she would just be taken to a hospital. But there would be no counselling to find the root of her problem.

It was only six years ago that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She has been put on different kinds of medications since.

After many years, she now has a new medication regimen that she hopes will be able to help her.

Today she said, she feels much better and but is sad about the toll her illness took on her family over the years.

“My children worry about me a lot and I always have to report to them where I am. I would not wish depression on my worst enemy; it is one of the worst things ever. Who wants to feel depressed all the time and have nightmares?” she asked.

She advised mental health patients not to stop their medication without the consent of their doctor.

Mental illness fact sheet

* About one in five South Africans have suffered from common mental health disorders (depression, anxiety, bipolar and similar disorders) in the past year. For example, more than 4 percent of the population will suffer from panic disorder at some point in their lives.

* Studies revealed that about the same proportion (17 percent) of children and adolescents suffer from mental health disorders and almost half begin suffering before the age of 14.

* Trauma severely affects people’s mental health and well-being. The rate of mental disorders tends to double after emergencies.

South Africans are exposed to trauma frequently – an estimated 6 million South Africans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

What is Bipolar Disorder?

Bipolar disorder is a physical illness marked by extreme changes in mood, energy and behaviour. That’s why doctors classify it as a mood disorder. Formerly known as manic-depressive disorder, it is a mental illness involving episodes of serious mania and depression. The person’s mood usually swings from overly “high” and irritable to sad and hopeless, and then back again, with periods of normal mood in-between.

Bipolar disorder typically begins in adolescence or early adulthood and continues throughout life. It is often not recognised as an illness and people who have it may suffer needlessly for years.

What is depression?

Depression is a “whole-body” illness, involving the body, mood and thoughts.

It affects the way a person eats and sleeps, the way they feel about themselves and their world. Depression is not the same as a temporary blue mood. It is not a sign of personal weakness or a condition that can be willed away.

People with depression cannot merely “pull themselves together” and get better. Without treatment, symptoms can last for weeks, months or years. - The Star

For more information call Sadag at 011 262 6396 or visit the website at www.sadag.org

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