Mental Health Matters

Breaking the social stigma surrounding mental health conditions

Monday, October 23 2017

Even though an estimated 400 million people worldwide suffer from some or other form of mental illness, very few South Africans actively seek treatment for such conditions because of the stigma that is unfortunately still attached to mental illnesses.

This is according to Dr Hayley Walker-Williams, a clinical psychologist practising at Netcare Vaalpark Hospital near Sasolburg, and subject head of the Psychology Department at North-West University (Vanderbijlpark Campus), who spoke during October – Mental Health Awareness Month – about the fact  that many people unfortunately do not take mental health issues seriously enough, often regarding those who suffer from a mental health disorder as having a character flaw or simply looking for attention, or making it off as a matter of having to pull themselves together.

“However, like physical illnesses, mental health illnesses are real, can vary in severity and can cause significant impairment in the overall functioning of those impacted. This is as a result of a complex interplay between biological factors such as genes or brain chemistry, psychological factors including life experiences such as trauma or abuse, or because of social and environmental factors such as a family history of mental health problems,” Dr Walker-Williams explains.

“Mental health conditions involve changes in thinking, emotion or behaviour, and are associated with distress and/or problems functioning in social, work or family activities. Depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, post-traumatic stress, obsessive compulsive disorder and substance abuse are all very common disorders impacting individuals regardless of culture, gender, age or their socio-economic group,” she says.

When it comes to the early warning signs of a potential mental illness Dr Walker-Williams lists the following:

  • Eating or sleeping too much or too little
  • Withdrawing from people and usual activities 
  • Having little or no energy
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Smoking, drinking or using drugs more than usual
  • Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, or on edge
  • Experiencing severe mood swings that cause problems in relationships
  • Having persistent thoughts and memories you cannot get out of your head
  • Hearing voices or believing things that are not true
  • Thinking of harming yourself or others or
  • Being unable to perform daily tasks like taking care of your family or getting to work or school

In terms of promoting mental health awareness, Dr Walker-Williams says that recognising that mental illness is as real as any physical illness is the first vital step in the process.
“It is vital for people to acknowledge that mental illness impacts not only the individual, but also the person’s family, friends and community. Creating awareness requires actively educating people on what mental illness is and how to prevent it where possible in an effort to reduce the stigma that surrounds it. It is furthermore important to remember that mental illness is treatable and that with treatment, the majority of individuals with mental illness continue to function well in their daily lives. Seeking professional help from a healthcare practitioner or clinic should therefore be encouraged if a mental health condition is suspected,” she points out.

Netcare Vaalpark Hospital has a specialised mental health unit where you can receive treatment from a multidisciplinary team including a psychiatrist, which is a medical doctor specialising in treating the symptoms of mental illnesses with medication, as well as a clinical psychologist, which is a therapist focusing on assisting with addressing the problems underlying mental health conditions.

This specialised unit also offers dialectical behavioural group therapy sessions, which assist in facilitating the necessary life skills in order to manage the mental health condition.
For more information contact the Mental Health Unit at Netcare Vaalpark Hospital on 016 971 9000.


Issued by:           Martina Nicholson Associates (MNA) on behalf of Netcare
Contact:               Martina Nicholson, Graeme Swinney, Meggan Saville or Pieter Rossouw 
Telephone:        (011) 469 3016
Email:                   [email protected], [email protected], [email protected], or [email protected]