October is Mental Health Awareness Month in which awareness is raised about mental health issues and mobilizing efforts in support of better mental health. Yesterday the 10th October, we commemorated World Mental Health Day and the theme for this year was Mental Health in the Workplace. The World Health Organisation describes mental health 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 his or her community.”
According to the Chairperson of the Psychiatry Management Group – Dr Sebolelo Seape, ‘’…depression in the workplace costs South Africa 5,7% of GDP which amounts to approximately R232 billion. She also stated that 9,7% of the South African population ( or 4,5 million to be exact ) are suffering from depression.” These chilling statistics is an indication of the well – being of our nation and its implications are huge. During my childhood days, in our community I lived alongside people suffering from mental disorders but we could so easily brushed them off as crazy people. There was no attempt to understand the depth of despair they might have been going through and the effects it had on their families and significant others.
Mental illness is real, is mainstream in society and it is treatable. There is however still a great deal of ignorance about it and we try our best to subtly push aside any form of involvement with people suffering from the slightest hint of a mental disorder. We will go at great lengths to ensure that they do not intrude on our so called perfect lives. The effects of mental illness cannot be underrated because it can bring about sustained abnormal alterations in thinking, mood or behaviour resulting in high levels of distress and impaired functionality.
In our modern environment there are a multiplicity of competing demands like annoying colleagues, unwarranted expectations from your boss, an insecure spouse, unthankful children, abusive friendships, loss of income, dreaded disease suffered by someone dear to you…. the list is endless. All these issues can disrupt our state of well – being and erode our capacity to cope with the normal stresses of life. If it can be sustained indefinitely, it will create a favourable environment for the onset of deviant mental behaviour. Mental disorders have become the modern struggle for peace of mind. Given the above set of circumstances, we struggle with what we struggle.
EMBRACE PEOPLE IN THEIR BROKENESS
A few years ago, a young girl very close to me suffered severe bouts of panic attacks in her matric year. It necessitated intense institutionalised medical intervention over a protracted period of time. To some of us who visited her at the institution from time to time, all manner of questions came about – why her, why now, what about this that and the other? After her treatment the parents had to make drastic decisions about her school life, which at that point was seriously derailed. She ultimately went through a very successful treatment process and passed her matric with flying colours the next year. As I am talking to you right now, the girl has successfully overcome her psychological deficits, grown into a very beautiful young woman and is in the process to complete her Honours degree in the next two months. What lessons have I learned from this episode?
- Equip yourself: In order to make a meaningful contribution in assisting the family to navigate these challenging times, I had to know what I was talking about. I took a personal interest to read up and enquire about the signs and symptoms, root causes, the do’s and don’ts of engaging with the situation.
- Build trust: There is so much fear, shame, unbelief and rejection that captivates the heart and mind of someone that’s going through a mental challenge. You need to create a safe space for the individual concerned to express his / her fears, hopes, uncertainties and desires in an attitude of acceptance, openness and support.
- Do not take anything for granted: Take any signal as something worth talking about. Ask the right questions in order to pick up any latent factor that might exacerbate the problem. Give the necessary moral support but do not play MacGyver; leave the treatment to the professionals.
- The power of prayer: There were times when I was with the family and felt so helpless and hopeless. The only thing I could do when I retreated to the privacy of my life, was to pray for the girl and plead for God’s divine strength on the family. Ephesians 3 : 20 ( Message ) “ God can do anything, you know – far more than you could ever imagine or guess or request in your wildest dreams.” The results of my persistent prayers are there for everybody to see.
- Patience: Getting out of a mental disorder is not an event but a process; it requires patience and sensitivity. Christians should also realise that medication is not from “ the devil “. Prayer and Bible study are essential and quite helpful in the recovery process but does not at all times instantaneously heal mental disorders. Sometimes there are chemical imbalances that need to be corrected medically. Mental illness is treatable through medication, therapy and a lot of other positive things we can do to nourish ourselves.
As leaders, we have a responsibility to create a supportive environment in our workplaces that is empowering in order to help those around us to cope with the normal stresses of life and excel in their endeavours. On an individual basis, all of us need to have a circle of accountability consisting of a core group of trusted individuals in whose company we can make ourselves known for who we are. Just the opportunity to be heard, can be of significant therapeutic value. Do you have such an accountability circle?
Someone sent me a quote the other day that was so profound – people may hear your words, but they feel your attitude. May we have a compassionate attitude towards those around us who most of the times not through their own doing, got afflicted by some form of mental illness. To those who are going through the turbulent times of a mental disorder, whether mild or severe, I want to encourage you by saying don’t let your struggle become your identity.
There is hope!