Mental health is vital at all stages of life

South Africans face the reality of living with a mental health condition

Friday, July 6 2018

Each year, thousands of South Africans face the reality of living with a mental health condition. It’s important to be aware of mental illness and how you can support loved ones at every stage of their lives.

Change is an inevitable, necessary and often positive part of life. Sometimes however, major changes or life-stage transitions, such as starting school, going to university, starting a new job, moving to a new house, or retiring from work,  can be overwhelming and stressful. These types of changes may also be accompanied by mental disorders that are associated with certain life-stages.

Mental disorders in children are quite common and sometimes severe. About one-fourth of children and teens experience some type of mental disorder in any given year, one-third at some time in their lives.1 Anxiety disorders are the most common mental health disorders affecting children. These include overanxious disorder of childhood or separation anxiety disorder. Other common types of mental illnesses in childhood include behaviour disorders like attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), mood disorders like depression, and substance-use disorders like alcohol related disorders.1

“Life-stage disorders typically affect individuals at certain stages of their life cycle,” says Danilo Harkers, an occupational therapist at Akeso Arcadia Clinic. “These disorders are usually diagnosed during certain life stages, such as early childhood, adolescence, adulthood and old age.”
Harkers says there is a wide range of life-stage disorders that people should be aware of. During early childhood, parents need to be on the lookout for any mental health issues, and to monitor their children’s developmental milestones, which will be indicated on their Road to Health cards issued by the Department of Health. He advises parents to consult their GPs if they have any concerns.

Mental health is as important in older age as at any other time of life

On the other end of the spectrum of life-stages are disorders that appear as a person ages.

“During adulthood, especially in older adults, disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and dementia are common,” he says. “It is important to go for regular check-ups and consult with your GP if you have any signs or symptoms that are troubling you.”

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), there may be multiple risk factors for mental health problems at any point in life. Older adults may experience life stressors common to everyone, but also stressors that are more likely to occur in later life, like a significant ongoing loss in capacities and a decline in functional ability. In the later stages of life, people are more likely to experience bereavement, or a drop in socioeconomic status that happens with retirement. All of these stressors can result in isolation, loneliness or psychological distress in older people, for which they may require long-term care.2

Mental health has an impact on physical health and vice versa. Older adults with physical health conditions, such as heart disease, for example, have higher rates of depression than those who are healthy. Additionally, untreated depression in an older person with heart disease can negatively affect its outcome.2

Life-stage disorders have various causes and cannot be pinpointed to one specific source, Harkers says. “These include genetics, environmental factors, physical and emotional trauma, and lifestyle. Sometimes, there are no clear cut reasons why these disorders affect certain people.”

A need for greater awareness

Harkers believes that little is being done with regard to mental health awareness in South Africa. “People living with mental illness in this country are still keeping quiet and living in the shadows due to the stigma surrounding mental illness. October is Mental Health Awareness month. The majority of South Africans probably do not know that there is a whole month dedicated to mental illness and making the public aware of how it affects everyday life. Ignorance is bliss, and we choose not know about it and how these different illnesses affect our peers and those around us.”

He stresses that mental illness does not discriminate and can affect anyone during their lifetime. To improve mental health, Harkers advises, you need to take a holistic approach, including the physical, spiritual, emotional and social health aspects of your life.

“Start by getting regular exercise and eating a balanced diet,” he advises. “A good work/school-life balance is important. Socialising with peers can also help to maintain or improve mental wellness. Reach out and ask for professional help as soon as you notice changes in your behaviour or mood.”

Loved ones can support people suffering from mental disorders by providing emotional support and also by being part of the recovery process – going to family sessions with the individual and the healthcare professional, and making lifestyle changes that are necessary for the individual, such as committing to exercise and healthy eating. Family members can help by just being supportive and showing genuine interest in the individual’s life and showing compassion and empathy.

Global Statistics

  • ADHD affects 8%-10% of school-aged children.1
  • Depression occurs at a rate of about 2% during childhood and from 4%-7% during adolescence, affecting up to about 20% of adolescents by the time they reach adulthood.1
  • In teens more frequently than in younger children, addictions, bipolar disorder, and less often early onset schizophrenia may manifest.1
  • Autism spectrum disorder, characterised by impaired development in communication, social interaction, and behaviour, afflicts one out of every 88 children, a 78% increase in the past 10 years.1
  • Globally, the population is ageing rapidly. Between 2015 and 2050, the proportion of the world’s population over 60 years will nearly double, from 12% to 22%.2
  • Mental and neurological disorders among older adults account for 6.6% of the total disability (DALYs) for this age group.2
  • Approximately 15% of adults aged 60 and over suffer from a mental disorder.2

1. What are the most common mental illnesses in children? 2018, July 20.
Available from:
2. Mental health of older adults. World Health Organisation (WHO) 2018, July 20, Available from