Speaking up this mental health awareness month

October is mental health awareness month in South Africa. This month, South Africans who have mental health disorders are encouraged to speak up – something many struggle to do due to the stigma associated.

But, mental health disorders are more common than many might think. Worldwide, an estimated 400 million people suffer from mental disorders, including conditions like depressive disorder, anxiety, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), dementia and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

The global COVID-19 pandemic certainly contributed to the increase in mental health issues among working adults and school-going youth around the world. Dr Ade van Heerden, a medical officer who is running a primary healthcare clinic for the South African National Defence Force (SANDF), agrees with this sentiment.

“Having families locked in a house together for extended periods has increased the feeling of loneliness in kids and adults alike,” she explains. “Kids reported worrying about the future of school and their ability to succeed, while financial burdens, remote working and limited social interactions have all contributed to increased feelings of isolation, irritation, fear and anxiety in adults.”

“Kids and teenagers have also greatly increased their social media screen time, which is proven to escalate anxiety and depression symptoms,” Dr Van Heerden continues. “There has also been more interpersonal conflict within families, putting more stress on all parties involved.”

“The truth is that we have seen an unprecedented increase in suicide in men, women and teenagers due to lockdown restrictions globally. This tells us everything we need to know about how the pandemic is impacting our mental health,” Dr van Heerden notes.

Breaking the stigma

She notes that there are key symptoms to look out for when suspecting a loved one is struggling mentally.

“The most common symptoms include feelings of sadness, hopelessness and emptiness,” Dr Van Heerden lists. “They may also be more tearful, agitated, distracted or angrier than usual. Loss of interest in previously enjoyed hobbies or sport is also common, while weight fluctuations, unusual or disturbed sleeping schedules and unexplained physical issues like headaches have also been reported.”

This Mental Health Awareness Month, Dr van Heerden encourages everyone to speak up in order to help destigmatise mental health problems.

“We need to equip parents with the tools to recognise depression or anxiety in their children. We also need to keep working towards information, education and treatment available for all, especially in rural areas,” she says.

Not all symptoms are the same

Dr van Heerden also notes that in mild and even sometimes moderate cases of anxiety and depressive feelings, the focus should be on lifestyle and psychological interventions, assisted by over-the-counter medications sourced from nature.

“When experiencing the symptoms of anxiety, stress and depression, it’s easy to turn to pharmaceutical medication. However, there are natural alternatives and lifestyle changes that can be made to improve your overall wellbeing and assist in dealing with these symptoms.”

Consult a medical professional about the natural products that can assist with managing anxiety, stress and depression.

Lifestyle and diet changes

Dr van Heerden also encourages exercise and healthy diet changes to your lifestyle.  “If done regularly, exercise is proven to decrease the symptoms associated with anxiety and depression. Exercise releases feel-good hormones to improve your mood and lower your stress levels, while it also boosts confidence and general physical health,” she says.

A healthy, balanced diet also plays an important role in keeping your mind healthy. “For the body to function optimally, it needs a wide range of micronutrients and minerals to keep your gut and brain happy. Spending time outdoors will enhance vitamin D and melatonin levels, which play a crucial role in your mental health. Sometime outside every day will keep these nutrients topped up naturally.”

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