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Mental Health – Get a Clue

Mental health is a priority!

I was recently in a discussion on mental health at work and I was humbled by how much new information I gleaned from this session. We talk about mental health, but usually as an adjunct, peripheral part of health. We generally view health as physical wellness i.e. when we have a headache, a sprain or broken bone, we know we are unwell, pay immediate attention to it and promptly seek medical help. Physical ailments are physical and seen. Conversely, when we feel mentally off, we are more likely to brush it off as a momentary issue, or jokingly assert that we ‘woke up on the wrong side of the bed’. We tend to exhibit a similar flippancy when responding to physical or mental issues relating to people around us.

I decided to dig up some quick facts on mental health and thought WHO would be the ideal ‘teacher’. Here are few of the staggering facts:

· Around 1 in 5 of the world's children and adolescents have a mental disorder.

· Depression is one of the leading causes of disability, affecting 264 million people.

· Mental, neurological and substance use disorders make up 10% of the global burden of disease and 30% of non-fatal disease burden.

· Almost 800 000 people die by suicide every year; 1 person dies from suicide every 40 seconds. Suicide is the second leading cause of death in individuals aged 15-29 years.

· People with severe mental disorders die 10 to 20 years earlier than the general population.

· The global economy loses about US$ 1 trillion per year in productivity due to depression and anxiety.

I must admit that while I knew that mental health was an area that doesn’t receive the deserved attention in our communities, I was not fully up-to-speed with these numbers. I also know that because society tends to stigmatize mental disorders, information about it is less readily shared in everyday conversation; but looking at the numbers, made me sit up. The need for a more proactive approach to mental health and prevention of disorders cannot be relegated. It means that whether we are to home or at work, we must intentionally give space for conversations about mental health, be proactive to prevent "mental unwellness" and support those affected by mental disorders.

The challenge for us (families, organisations, communities, health services, etc) is that the stigma around mental health is still prevalent. Many times, individuals affected by depression, bi-polar disorder and other mental conditions are labelled ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’. A history of mental illness may mean that any incidents that arise could be brushed off, mismanaged or even unfair to individuals seen as ‘unstable.’ There are also many myths surrounding mental health that we still need to dismantle even as we build understanding and health or organisational frameworks for prevention or management of mental disorders.

In my reading, I explored some mental health myths in the US* that I suspect are common globally. First, mental health problems don't affect me. The fact is that one in 25 Americans lived with a serious mental illness, such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or major depression. (I personally know at least 2 people who have been diagnosed with depression and bi-polar disorder). Myth 2: People with mental health problems are violent and unpredictable. The fact is that many people with mental health problems are no more likely to be violent than anyone else. In fact, people with severe mental illnesses are over 10 times more likely to be victims of violent crime than the general population. Myth 3: Personality weakness or character flaws cause mental health problems. The fact is that mental health problems have nothing to do with being lazy or weak and many people need help to get better.

I can’t help but share a common myth I have heard in some African communities: mental disorders are ‘white’ diseases. The underlying message here is that Africans are built with a resilience/ immunity to mental disorders, so depression and the like, only affect Caucasian communities. Several people in Africa do not know the word for depression in their local language. It may be that that a direct translation is difficult because it is highly likely that people with mental disorders in the past were labeled as ‘mad’, ‘crazy’ or ‘bewitched’.

All this sounds morbid but the truth is that people with mental health problems can get better and many recover completely. It may be that you know someone with a mental health problem and don't even realize it as many people with mental health problems are highly active and productive members of our communities.

Given how common mental disorders are, it behooves us as members of communities, leaders or institutions to proactively set in place the mechanisms needed to educate the masses about mental health and institute programs for prevention and management of associated disorders. Factors that contribute to mental health problems, include biological factors e.g. genes, physical illness, injury, or brain chemistry; life experiences, such as trauma or a history of abuse; or a family history of mental health problems.

I am not a medical or mental health expert but from a corporate perspective, there is opportunity to drive mental health awareness and provide support and management channels to employees. The pandemic situation has already highlighted the dire need to not only design typical HR initiatives (e.g. for career management) but we need to also have life management mechanisms to support employees. Anonymous and easy access to psychologists, counsellors, coaches or physicians is critical; including online consultations. The interaction among managers, staff, families and medical professionals is even more critical as relationships are now more than ever more than ‘professional’ interactions. They require attention, empathy and readiness to extend support to those that need it.

Organisations espouse the importance of a healthy workforce and invest in robust medical health schemes to ensure their employees are healthy. It is time to put mental health where it belongs – as part of the health priorities for individuals, families, communities and organisations. WHO reminds us that health is not just the absence of disease - it is complete physical, mental and social well-being. Mental health includes the emotional, psychological and social well being and affects how we think, feel and act. It helps determine how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices. If people are the most important assets in our organisations, we need to pay attention to and invest in their total wellness.

Always Rooting For You x

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