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In our topsy-turvy world where countless millennials are living in stressful conditions, it comes as no surprise that mental disorders have become a common phenomenon.

“The consequences of untreated mental disorders may be severe, potentially life threatening and adversely affect multiple domains of life”, cautions Dr Linessa Moodley, a psychiatrist at Akeso Kenilworth Clinic.

She points out that mental illnesses are serious disorders which impair functioning (personal, professional and financial), as well as physical health. “The longer the duration of untreated symptoms, the more difficult it may be to achieve significant symptom relief when treatment is eventually initiated.”

Stigma

Often people refrain from seeking professional help because of the stigma associated with mental illness, Dr Moodley adds.

“Mental health is an often stigmatised field of medicine. Many people feel that to see a psychiatrist means that something is very wrong and that a referral is in itself an admission of severe illness. Few see the role of the psychiatrist as someone who helps ordinary people deal with extraordinary situations.

This unfortunately means that many people who need psychiatric help, don’t receive it and are left to struggle on their own unnecessarily,” says Dr Moodley.

Mental health

Mental health is described as “a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to their community.”

The WHO defines health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” “It is important to recognize that mental health is therefore an essential component of overall health and it is crucial to our sense of wellbeing,” Dr Moodley stresses.

Conversely, “mental illness/disorder can be understood as illness that adversely impacts emotion, cognition, behaviour, and/or speech and results in a deterioration in the level of functioning in multiple domains, for example work, personal life, family roles/responsibilities, etc.,” she points out.

Statistics

According to Dr Moodley, statistics indicate that 1 in 4 people will face mental or neurological disorders during their lifetime, yet only approximately two-thirds of people with a mental illness seek help.

The WHO reports that over 300 million people worldwide (4.4% of the total population) suffer from depression.

It is also estimated that up to 20% of the world’s children and adolescents face mental disorders or problems.

The SASH study (South African Stress and Health) conducted in 2009 indicated a lifetime prevalence of 30.3% for any mental disorder.

In South Africa, 1 in 6 people are diagnosed with depression, substance abuse or anxiety.

More common types of mental disorders

Depression and anxiety are the most common disorders with international estimates of 4.4 % and 3.6 % of the world’s population affected.

According to the SASH study, the South African lifetime prevalence rates for depression and anxiety are 9.8% and 15.8% respectively.

Substance abuse is also rife in South Africa, with a 13.4% lifetime prevalence.

Causes

There is no single cause of mental illness, Dr Moodley points out.

“As is the case in many other illnesses in medicine, an interplay of a combination of factors is required. For example, you don’t always develop an infection (e.g. the flu) after exposure to someone who is ill. The simple exposure to bacteria/a virus does not always result in the manifestation of illness.

A combination of factors such as the virulence of the organism, length of exposure, individual immune status etc. all interact with each other and only in certain situations will you become unwell.

“Mental illness is similar. A combination of genetic predisposition (or positive family history), early life trauma/adversity, stressors, medical illnesses, and substances, among other factors, all influence each other and the likelihood of developing mental illness,” she explains.

Symptoms

The specific symptoms differ depending on the illness, Dr Moodley adds.

“All mental illnesses ultimately affect our ability to function at our usual levels, but rather than waiting until that happens, I would suggest asking for help if you notice any of the following :

·persistent changes to your mood;
·feeling overwhelmed and exhausted;
·feeling that you are not coping with your usual day to day activities;
·feeling unlike your usual self and concerns that you may have mental health difficulties;
·having unusual experiences such as seeing or hearing things that other can’t;
·being told by friends or family that they are concerned about your mental well-being;
·having trouble with your memory;
·having thoughts of harming yourself; and
·having difficulty with substance misuse.

“It is also important to note that it may be difficult for the person with the disorder to recognise that he/she is unwell and may need help. If you are concerned that someone you care about doesn’t seem like themselves for whatever reason, rather talk to them about seeing a professional for an assessment, than wait it out and hope that things spontaneously improve,” Dr Moodley suggests.

Knowledge, awareness and self-care are all imperative to prevent or minimise the onset of mental disorders and relapses, adds Sandy Lewis, Head of Psychological Services.

Treatment options

Multiple treatment options are available, depending on the nature of the illness, Dr Moodley advises.

·Psychological interventions in the form of individual, couples or family therapy are also commonly used alone or in conjunction with medication.

·Patients may receive inpatient or outpatient care in both the public and private sectors.

·Medication is used when indicated, but is not the only form of treatment offered.

·“Mental health teams consist of a range of professionals from many different disciplines and typically include doctors, nurses, psychologists, social workers, occupational therapists, and other allied health care workers and most importantly, the patient and their family form an important part of the treatment team,” she points out.

·Other community based services may also be used to assist in recovery.

Can a person fully overcome a mental disorder?

“Mental illnesses are often, but not always, chronic conditions. Some people have a single episode of illness and fully recover, others may have frequent relapses and still others lie somewhere in between these two groups. “This said, recovery from mental illness is certainly possible, as is finding ways to cope with living with a chronic illness,” Dr Moodley stresses.

A helping hand…

“If you are worried about someone you love or care for, start by talking to them and asking how you could be of help to them. More harm may be done by avoiding the situation and having it deteriorate, than by simply talking about the symptoms.

Encourage them to see a professional for an assessment and support them when they do so.

“If they refuse help and you remain concerned, speak to a healthcare professional or a doctor about the specific steps to take to get help, especially in the case of more serious symptoms. There are also many agencies that you may contact such as, Akeso Clinics who also have a Psychiatric Intervention Unit, intended to service the community at large.

The Unit consists of a hotline coupled with a vehicular response unit. In the state sector, you may call your local clinic or hospital and ask for advice from the nurse or doctor working in Psychiatry, and agencies such as SADAG and Lifeline also have call centres that can offer guidance,” Dr Moodley concludes.