July is ironically Mental Health Awareness Month and becoming aware of how to help yourself and those around you in these difficult times is vital.

A study conducted by a Wits School of Economics and Finance duo – Dr Adeola Oyenubi, senior lecturer, and Uma Kollamparambil, head of the school, showed that the prevalence of depressive symptoms doubled between 2017 and 2020.

The ever-increasing number of COVID-19 cases and deaths combined with the economic devastation of the recent unrest, are all contributing factors affecting mental health and destabilizing one’s routine.

According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), there has been in a marked increase in the number of calls received from people feeling anxious, lonely, worried or depressed. Many callers have identified a combination of issues including the spread of COVID-19, finances, relationship problems, job security, grief, gender-based violence and trauma.

A recent online SADAG survey showed 65% of participants felt a sense of heightened stress and panic due to lockdown.

Within two weeks, more than 1200 participants completed the short 7-minute survey which covered a number of aspects including home life, mental health before and during lockdown, access to information and coping tips used to manage their mental health during lockdown.

At least 55% said they had experienced anxiety and panic, 46% were under financial pressure and 40% had felt depressed.

Mental health: Turning her life around

*Thulisa Dhlamini from Mngungundlovu in KZN, started working a nearby farm two months before the start of the pandemic. She had been unemployed for more than two years prior and was forced to give up her agriculture final year studies due to a lack of finances.

“As someone who had been living with depression and anxiety long before COVID-19, I was easily triggered in ways I didn’t expect because it felt like so many aspects of my life were affected,” Dhlamini explained.

One by one, things started to unravel for the 34-year-old.

“I lost two relatives in 2020 and another a few months ago. My contract with the farm came to an end earlier this year and they weren’t in a position to renew it. Everything seemed to be happening at once,” she added.

Coping mechanisms

Dhlamini made a decision to move back home to the Eastern Cape after losing her job.

“I have a lot more family members by my side which helps distract me from thoughts that sadden me. Cooking and sharing meals with my family, writing in my journal, taking walks and gardening are some of the things I like to do as part of my daily routine. I am now enjoying me days a little more.”

When feeling alone and helpless, Dhlamini makes contact with a counsellor via Lifeline who helps guide her through her emotions.

When she feels alone and hopeless, Dhlamini said that she calls a toll free counselor from Lifeline who is available to talk her through her emotions during a session.

‘Just breathe’

Dr Simangele Mayisela, an Educational Psychologist and Senior Lecturer at the Wits Psychology Department, said people who were living with mental health conditions before lockdown have especially been challenged due to a drastic change in their routines. Dealing with family members, school or the workplace adds to the struggle.

She added that the mental health of children and adults is especially important because of how vulnerable people are to triggers worsened by the pandemic.

“The limitations on social gatherings, hospital visits, and social distancing are some of the regulations that have been enforced by government to curb the spread of the virus. But they can also have very negative effects on one’s mental health because there are feelings of loneliness, anxiety, self-doubt, and fear that are triggered as a result of the regulations, and internalizing the lockdown measures.”

Mayisela encouraged people who deal with anxiety and panic attacks to start by reminding themselves to breathe.

“It’s simple but very important. Taking a breath is a way to manage your thoughts and emotions, as well as a way to calm yourself down,” she said.

Don’t neglect your mental well-being

Research shows that mental health and nervous system disorders rank third highest after HIV and other infectious diseases in South Africa. The main difference, however, is that mental disorders are far less likely to be treated as compared to physical disorders since mental illnesses don’t always have obvious symptoms.

According to a report by the South African College of Applied Psychology, only 27% of South Africans suffering from severe mental disorders receive treatment.

Furthermore, a SADAG study reveals that as many as one in six South Africans suffer from anxiety, depression or substance-use problems (and this doesn’t include more serious conditions such as bipolar or schizophrenia).

Mental health also only accounts for a mere 5% in the national health budget while only half of all public hospitals offering mental health services have psychiatrists available and about 30% don’t have clinical psychologists.

Public mental health services also hardly featured in the 2020/21 national health budget meaning access to medical care can sometimes be a problem.

There are a number of medication-free and budget-friendly options available should you find yourself needing some coping mechanisms when feeling stressed:

  1. Maintain a daily routine as much as possible – get up, get dressed, create a to-do list, etc.
  2. Take care of your body – doing physical activity helps to loosen the joints and relax the mind, while building strength. Go for a walk or a jog, eat healthier and stick to physical exercise which works for you and that you find enjoyable.
  3. Take time to do the things you enjoy on your own or with those around you. Playing games, sharing a meal, cooking or having a chat are all ways of unwinding. – Health-e News