There is no shame in treating an illness of the mind

With the festive season upon us, as the South African Anxiety and Depression Group has said we should expect more suicides and depression.

Catching up with old friends, colleagues and acquaintances, I noticed that this time of year is usually the hardest.

After a year of Covid waves, new variants, politics and elections, many were silently suffering from some sort of mental illness – including myself.

Standing in the local pharmacy waiting to collect my monthly dose of antidepressants, I heard the pharmacist on the phone arranging to deliver the exact same medication to another patient. My curiosity led me to probe.

“Yes, a lot of people have indeed been coming to get antidepressants. It seems a lot of people are going through a lot of mental health problems since the pandemic,” the pharmacist explained to me.

Despite stresses and frustrations from the pandemic, including businesses having to close, people losing their jobs and having to bury loved ones, the end of the year seems to be a challenge for many. I learned this from a paramedic several years ago, after making her aware of the numerous sirens I kept hearing towards the end of the year.

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According to the paramedic, a lot of people have heart attacks between September and December of each year and calls of suicides are also highest during that time. This was confirmed by the South African Anxiety and Depression Group (Sadag), stating that higher levels of stress and depression are reported this time of year, with December having the highest rate of suicides for the whole year in South Africa.

Research by the organisation found that one in five South Africans are affected by anxiety, which is when someone is constantly worrying about something such as finances and exam results which overwhelms some, resorting to them having no way out.

This anxiety seems to have worsened in the past year due to job losses, Covid fatigue, with some having to put in more hours at work as companies have trimmed their staff, leaving those remaining to take on additional duties.

While awareness of mental illness is increasing, there are still those who feel “happy pills” are not for them. Including a close male friend of mine, who felt embarrassed that he was prescribed antidepressants.

“But I am a man. I must be able to handle stress. I can’t believe I have to take pills to control my feelings,” he said.

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But the brain is part of the body. As much as some people are content with taking chronic medication for high blood pressure, diabetes or even temporary treatment for an ailment such as flu or an infection, antidepressants are medication for the brain.

Suicide statistics for 2019 by the World Health Organisation found that 13,774 men committed suicide in the country that year as compared to 2,913 women.

There is no shame in treating an illness of the mind. With the festive season upon us, as Sadag has said, we should expect more suicides and depression.

However, I advise those, particularly men, to put their pride and egos aside and seek help. Mental illness does not go on holiday.

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