The state of mental health in South Africa

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group estimate that more than 17 million South Africans are suffering from various mental health problems, including substance abuse, schizophrenia and depression. Many of these people will not seek treatment due to the fear of stigmatisation from their local communities. That’s why it’s important to create a conversation about why mental health is important so we can take care of ourselves and better understand the state of mental health in South Africa. 

Causes of mental health

Mental health is a broad term used to describe our emotional, psychological and social well-being. It’s important because it affects how we think, feel and act. It’s also a determinant of how we relate to others and react to stimuli from our environment and the subsequent choices we make in life. Good mental health means that you can perform life’s key activities while managing a range of emotions, both good and bad, in the process.

The causes of poor mental health in South Africa can stem from various factors, including a genetic predisposition, which can increase an individual’s susceptibility to certain types of mental disorders. Environmental factors, such as exposure to trauma, abuse, or chronic stress, also play a significant role. Biological factors, such as hormonal imbalances or neurochemical disruptions, impact brain function. Additionally, lifestyle choices, including poor diet, lack of exercise, and substance abuse, can exacerbate mental health issues. Finally, lack of access to mental health care and support can prevent individuals from receiving the help they need, further deteriorating their mental health.

Specialist focus: Psychiatrist

Should you need treatment for a mental health condition or disorder, your GP may refer you to a psychiatrist or psychologist. These mental health care professionals will be able to diagnose your condition by running certain medical tests or through an assessment/evaluation; and prescribe a treatment plan to address your symptoms or underlying condition.

What’s the difference between a psychiatrist and a psychologist?

While both psychiatrists and psychologists treat patients who are suffering from mental health conditions, their educational backgrounds and roles are different. A psychiatrist is a medical doctor who diagnoses mental health conditions and prescribes medication, like antidepressants, sedatives or mood stabilisers, for treatment. A psychologist, in comparison, has an advanced degree and uses ‘talk therapy’ as a means to treat patients suffering from mental health conditions and assist them in their recovery.

What does a psychiatrist do?

A psychiatrist helps those suffering from mental health problems by assessing their symptoms, making a diagnosis and recommending a treatment plan. People may visit a psychiatrist if they’re experiencing some of the following reasons:

  • Recurring thoughts about hurting themselves or others
  • An inability to cope with stress or a certain situation
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Prolonged depression or manic behaviour
  • Disruptive behaviour, like insomnia
  • Addictive problems, like compulsive gambling
  • Hallucinations or delusions

Whatever the reason for the consultation, a psychiatrist will provide care in the form of psychological treatment, like psychotherapy and prescribe certain medications. They may also offer practical advice about making certain lifestyle changes or provide you with information about your condition. In extreme cases, they can admit you to a hospital for specialised care or refer you to another healthcare professional.

What are the most common mental health conditions in South Africa?

The Ipsos World Mental Health Survey which included over 23,000 respondents from 31 countries, has revealed that the state of mental health in South Africa is quite poor, with revelations that over 70% of South Africans are dealing with severe stress levels. There are a wide range of different mental health disorders, which can range in severity and complexity. Some of the most common mental health issues include the following: 

Mood disorders

This is a chronic condition where one’s mental state is unstable and is often characterised by the elevation or lowering of one’s mood for an extended period. Types of mood disorders include depression and bipolar disorder. People who suffer from depression experience a state of feeling sad, worthless or helpless for prolonged periods, while Bipolar disorder is characterised by extreme mood swings, which alternate between depression and irrational mania (or hypomania).

Psychotic disorders

This debilitating condition is characterised by a distorted awareness of reality and can sometimes include irrational delusions or even hallucinations. Schizophrenia is one of the most common types of psychotic disorders. Those affected suffer from distorted thoughts and unfounded paranoia, which causes extreme discomfort and affects their ability to function properly in society.

Anxiety disorders

This type of disorder differs from a mood disorder, like depression, because those affected experience heightened emotions, like increased heart rate, shortness of breath or sweating, when faced with certain objects, people or situations. Typically, the affected individual who suffers from an anxiety disorder is unable to control their reaction, which makes the situation even more stressful.

Personality disorders

This chronic condition presents as an inflexible or extreme personality trait that affects normal functioning and can hurt a person’s social, personal or professional life. Borderline personality disorder, antisocial personality disorder and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder are some that fall into this category.

The impact of diet on your mental health

There is a strong correlation between dietary patterns and brain function. A diet high in processed foods, sugars, and unhealthy fats can lead to inflammation and oxidative stress, negatively impacting brain function. This can increase the risk of developing anxiety and depression. However, diets rich in fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins promote better mental health outcomes. It’s recommended to follow a balanced, nutrient-dense diet for both physical health, and maintaining and improving mental health. Discover more about foods that are good and bad for your mental health. 

6 ways to take care of your mental health

It’s important to take care of yourself both physically and mentally. Mental health in South Africa doesn’t have to involve complicated or costly interventions. Some of the best remedies are simply practical steps and good common sense. Here are some simple ways to make sure you’re taking care of yourself and your mental health:

  1. Practice self-care – this means you take an active and conscious role in keeping yourself healthy. The solution is to find a balance in all aspects of your life.
  2. Be accepting of who you are – good self-esteem is directly linked to mental health. Understand that we are all different in our own unique way, so it doesn’t help to constantly compare yourself to others or to be critical of your perceived shortcomings.
  3. Do something you enjoy or are good at – as this will help you beat stress. Indulge in a relaxing or stimulating hobby regularly to recharge your mental battery.
  4. Keep active – regular exercise is a great way to care of your body and mind. Keeping active is linked to boosting self-esteem, getting good quality sleep and helping you feel better.
  5. Keep in touch – don’t be a stranger. It’s important to maintain relationships with our friends, family and colleagues. While we may all be practising social distancing at the moment, we recommend that you find the time for a quick catch-up over skype or a heart-to-heart chat on the phone.
  6. Learn to ask for help – there’s no shame in admitting that you’re not coping. Talk about your feelings if you’re feeling overwhelmed. If the strain gets too much then you should get professional help as soon as possible.

Will health insurance cover mental health treatment?

Yes, Health4Me Gold health insurance plans will cover a specialist visit, like a psychiatric consultation, if you need to get help for a mental health disorder. Gold members may visit an approved psychiatrist from the Momentum CareCross Network. Health insurance plans do not cover the cost of visiting a psychologist or counselling therapist. These medical costs will need to be settled out of pocket

How to get a referral to see a psychiatrist?

You will need a GP referral in order to book an appointment with a psychiatrist. This falls into the specialist benefit. You will be limited to two visits of up to and not exceeding R1,000 per consultation each year. Any shortfalls will need to be covered by the member.

Get health insurance from Bloom 

Bloom encourages a healthy lifestyle that includes good mental health. October is mental health awareness month in South Africa. We encourage members to take the right steps to ensure a healthy state of mind. Reach out for help if you or a loved one is feeling the burden or impact of mental health problems. Get affordable medical health insurance for you and your family by contacting our team of trained consultants.

Your journey to quality healthcare starts here.

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