Experts say there is no better time for everyone to focus on mental health care. Picture: Pexels / Polina Zimmerman
Experts say there is no better time for everyone to focus on mental health care. Picture: Pexels / Polina Zimmerman

CEO Yael Geffen shares her mental health story: I consider my bipolar my ’brilliant burden’

By Viwe Ndongeni-Ntlebi Time of article published Oct 19, 2021

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As the country marks Mental Health Awareness month, a call has been made to reduce the stigma and discrimination that people with mental illness are often subjected to.

A recent World Health Organization (WHO) survey conducted in 130 countries shows that Covid-19 has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide while the demand for such services has increased.

Prior to the pandemic, the WHO found that many countries were spending less than 2% of their national health budgets on mental health and struggling to meet their populations’ needs.

This has sparked concerns that the current situation could become dire if ignored.

A study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council during the first hard lockdown around April 2020 reported that 33% of South Africans were suffering from depression, while 45% were fearful, and 29% were experiencing loneliness.

Some leaders of companies are now at the forefront of driving the importance of breaking the stigma associated with mental health.

One such leader is Yael Geffen, the CEO of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty in South Africa.

Geffen suffers from bipolar II and has spoken publicly about her personal journey.

She’s challenged others to do the same.

“It still blows my mind that we are comfortable to talk about cancer, diabetes and cardiac disease and the associated prescribed medication, and yet, despite the horrifying global statistics, we are still so afraid to talk about mental health which should be seen as no different.

“It's still very much a taboo subject, with only a few celebrities and public figures coming forward with their own stories.”

Geffen's personal mental health journey began at age 22 when she was living in New York and began to feel severely depressed, anxious and even suicidal at times.

“I sought help immediately and, with medication, therapy and personal development, I have been able to create a beautiful life filled with a successful career, amazing relationships and family.”

Geffen added: “Tragically, I have lost loved ones who succumbed to their mental illness by taking their own lives, and I can truly understand how they were feeling at the time. My message is that there IS a choice, there are resources, and there is help – you must just take that first step.

“We are very open about it in my workplace, and we are supportive of mental health days as this not only creates more loyalty but happier, healthier and more productive employees.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) says as many as one in six South Africans suffers from anxiety, depression, or substance-use problems.

Geffen admits that mental health can be hard to navigate.

“Sure, my mental illness can be challenging at times, but it’s also what I consider my brilliant burden: one that allows me to be creative, highly functional and the best version of me – and I no longer carry shame about acknowledging it.

“In fact, I would like to inspire other leaders to come forward and share their stories. There is valid research that many entrepreneurs and business leaders suffer from mental illness, and the studies actually show that it makes them better leaders,” said Geffen.

Reagen Kok, Hoorah Digital CEO, says, in recent months, the company realised that its teams were emotionally drained due to several reasons, including the limited in-person interaction with colleagues.

“But even without the additional pressures of the past 18 months, there’s clearly a need to prioritise the mental health of our people. We identified a need to make the services of an independent counsellor freely available to all staff. We’ve been both pleased and surprised by the uptake – pleased by the fact that people are making use of the service and surprised by just how big the need is. Staff are guaranteed absolute confidentiality and assured that their use of the service will in no way be used against them,” said Kok.

He strongly believes that it’s essential that mental health is taken as seriously as physical health and that conversations around it are normalised.

“That starts with recognising that the mental well-being of our team has to be a priority,” Kok said.

While mental health can be managed through medication, there are also several ways to complement the process.

Conscious breathing can make a difference.

While we breathe to feed our body with oxygen, it’s a function linked to our emotional and mental states.

Dr Ela Manga, the author of Breathe – Strategising Energy in the Age of Burnout, says breathing is regulated by the nervous system and is also in our conscious control.

“We develop suboptimal breathing habits in response to emotional suppression, societal conditioning and modern lifestyles. These breathing patterns then form part of neural pathways that inform our thinking patterns, choices and habits.

“When used in specific ways, breathing allows us to release and resolve emotions, belief systems, stresses and memories which are often inaccessible through the more conventional talking therapies. Breathing is the bridge between our conscious and subconscious experiences,” Manga said.

Manga adds that conscious breathing is one of the safest and most direct ways to explore our bodies, minds, emotions and spirituality, allowing access to our natural state of energy and inner peace.

While we are aware that our diet quality can affect our physical health, it is also important to note the impact food can have on our mental health too.

Poor dietary habits alone have increased the risk of depression by 18% in adults and across their lifespan.

Researchers at Harvard Health Publishing exploring the “gut-brain connection'', found that the gastrointestinal tract works alongside the brain and can contribute to one’s mood and mental health.

“When you learn to give your body and brain what it needs, you will feel a remarkable difference in your quality of life.” the researchers noted.

Herbalife Nutrition shares tips on what to add for mood-boosting food nutrients for mental health:

Complex carbohydrates, such as starchy vegetables, brown rice, sweet potatoes and quinoa, offer a good source of energy.

Protein is a critical part of the processes that fuel the body’s energy and carry oxygen throughout the body in the blood, so including lean protein in daily diet is key. Fish, meat, chicken, eggs, nuts, seeds and soya beans are good sources of protein.

Fatty acids help assist the brain and nervous system. Flax seeds, meat, fish, and eggs are all packed with fatty acids.

Healthy fats, such as avocado as well as coconut and olive oils, also support healthy brain function.

Health experts advise against processed snacks and high-sugar foods, which can impact the ability to concentrate and may cause dips and spikes in energy levels during the day, advises health experts.

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