Mental illness is not a death sentence, nor is it something to be ashamed of, as the message of a new social media campaign says. 'Let's Talk' encourages society to embrace mental health issues and eliminate the stigma.
depression

People with mental illnesses owe it to themselves to respond to the challenges of their conditions by seeking help and treatment to regain control of their lives. To achieve this, they must first be aware of their condition and what treatment is available to manage it.

A social media campaign called 'Let's Talk Mental Health Awareness' has been running since August and aims to remove the stigma attached to mental illnesses.

The situation, organisers believe, can improve if those who live with mental conditions talk about their struggles, cast off the associated shame, and encourage others to come forward to receive help from trained professionals.


The project is a joint effort between the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) and Pharma Dynamics, a company that provides generic medication for depression and anxiety.


Embracing mental illness
The initiative puts faces of well-known media personalities to different mental conditions that are familiar to a large number of South Africans. A short film, titled Let's Talk, was produced as part of the campaign and made available on YouTube to reach large numbers. The released coincided with World Mental Health Day, which is celebrated on 10 October and is recognised by the World Health Organisation.

Veteran actress Lilian Dube likens her experience a few years back to a feeling of being in a bottomless pit, even when around lots of people. She suffered from depression for many years without knowing what it was or how she could get help.

Dube, along with others like television presenter Penny Lebyane and former Mr South Africa and now presenter of his own medical programme, Dr Michael Mol, talk candidly about their struggles with mental illnesses.

"If you form a support group then you know you're not alone," Dube suggests. "The feeling of thinking you're alone in your journey is the most terrible." A leader of one such support group, Driekie Moutinho, agrees and says people with mental illnesses have to take a proactive approach to managing them.

Psychiatrist Ian Westmore touches on the element of trust and says that people with mental Illnesses should understand that doctors have not only a good understanding of brain diseases, but know how to effectively treat most of them.

"Mental illness is not a death sentence," says Dr Gerhard Glober. "People with mental illness can have full, productive lives provided they recognise their needs."


Policy changes needed
As is the case with other health services in South Africa, there are disparities between treatment facilities for mental illnesses for urban and rural communities.

People in urban areas have access to built-up facilities, healthcare professionals and treatment in abundance, while this is not the case for sufferers in rural areas.

A concern among professionals in the mental health industry is that it is this population of patients, who live far away from ever-advancing facilities, who are more vulnerable because many lack awareness.

A change in the overall health strategy of the country is needed, asserts psychiatrist Franco Colin.

"The focus, from the national government's perspective, is on tuberculosis, HIV, infant mortality, maternal health and violence-related trauma," he said. "And psychology touches on each and every one of those areas."

Westmore agrees: "We get so little of the health budgets, while the private sector provides plans that do not cover mental health sufficiently."

His view is that there needs to be equity as far as mental conditions are concerned.

Chilling facts
Research by Sadag reveals that one in five South Africans suffers from mental illness, while two in 100 children could be depressed. Experts worry that socio-economic factors like poverty and inequality as well as trauma and violence, which could in turn lead to substance abuse, continue to add to the pressure faced by the nation.

Cassey Chambers, director of operations at Sadag, notes that mental illness is a big problem not only in South Africa, but most developing countries worldwide. All the more reason why, she says, campaigns like Let's Talk should receive as much support as possible.

"It's not only sufferers who should be targeted, but also those who provide care for them."

Between 35% and 41% of pregnant or new mothers are victims of depression.

As many as 23 people take their lives, and another 230 attempt to do so, in South Africa every day. The threat, many of the experts interviewed for Let's Talk agree, lies in conditions being ignored or misunderstood for long periods of time.

Television and film actress Bonnie Henna, who has appeared in international productions like Catch a Fire and Hotel Rwanda, recently revealed her struggles with clinical depression in an autobiography titled Eyebags and Dimples.

Henna says in the book that for many years she lived with clinical depression and did not know it. Her father was murdered when she was only five years old and throughout her childhood and early adulthood her relationship with her mother, who later also discovered she had depression, was very strained.

"Let's Talk is certainly South Africa's most ambitious mental health programme yet," says Mariska Fouche, public affairs manager for Pharma Dynamics, adding that thousands of people have visited the campaign website since its launch.

The campaign attracted many testimonials from teenagers to members of the elderly community, who said they were lonely and felt alienated.

These were their biggest obstacles to fighting the conditions they live with, most commonly depression and anxiety.

"We've invested a lot in the campaign," says Fouche, "and we hope the film will start a large social media movement and help change attitudes and taboos that still exist around mental illness."