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Reducing the stigma of mental illness

Reducing the stigma of mental illness

Mental Health Awareness month is commemorated in October and the South African Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) will focus on the topic of Dignity in Mental Health: Psychological and Mental Health First Aid for sll.

In South Africa, dignity is regarded as a basic human right that is protected in our Constitution.

According to current statistics, 1 in 4 people will experience some kind of mental health problem during their lifetime and many more will see their friends of family members affected.

When someone suffers a physical injury at home, work or school, they can generally depend on being treated with sympathy and receiving first aid treatment until they can receive professional medical help. However, when someone experiences a mental health problem or crises in these same settings, they are often stigmatised and treated as if their symptoms or experience does not qualify as a real health crises.

Many people don’t know, but this is a violation of their basic human rights. SAFMH is calling on all sectors of society to make training and implementation of mental health first aid a priority, to ensure that those experiencing psychological distress are always treated with dignity and receive the assistance they require.

Mental health problems range from issues such as depression, anxiety disorders to conditions like schizophrenia.

Physical first aid is administered in most businesses, schools and organisations and it is a priority to have someone trained to administer basic first aid in the case of an emergency.

Mental health first aid is a relatively newer concept and it focuses on providing support and assistance to someone suffering a traumatic event or other mental health problem.

Car accidents, domestic violence, violent crimes or natural disasters are just a few of the traumatic events that someone may be exposed to in their lifetime. Studies have shown that the rates of mood and anxiety disorders, substance use, general psychological distress, social needs and impairments in social functioning increase among those exposed to crisis events.

Psychological and mental health first aid is a relatively unknown term in South Africa. It is a potentially lifesaving skill that we all need to have. Learning how to provide basic mental health first aid will enable people to provide support to distressed individuals in the same way as they do in physical health crises. Highlighting and teaching mental health first aid skills to all will also make a significant contribution to pulling mental health out of the shadows, and ensuring that mental health care users are treated with the respect and dignity they deserve.

What is Mental Health First Aid?

Psychological and mental health first aid is the help offered to a person showing early signs of a mental health problem, experiencing a worsening of an existing mental health problem or in a mental health crisis. The first aid is given until appropriate professional help is received or until the crisis resolves.

The aims of mental health first aid are to:

  1. Preserve life where a person may be at risk of harm
  2. Provide help to prevent the mental health problem from becoming more serious
  3. Promote recovery of good mental health
  4. Provide comfort to a person with a mental health problem/in a time of crisis

Mental health first aid will typically be offered by someone who is not a mental health professional, but rather by someone in the person’s social network (such as family, friends or work colleagues) or by someone who may come into contact with potentially vulnerable individuals on a daily basis, such as a teacher, police officer or social worker.

During Mental Health Awareness month everyone all levels of society are encouraged to address the stigmas associated with mental ill-health so that dignity is promoted and respected and more people are empowered to take action to promote mental wellbeing.

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