October is global mental health awareness month and this year the spotlight is turned towards the pandemic and how mental health issues have increased in both children and adults, with the enforced isolation exacerbating an already challenging situation.
According to a recent World Health Organization (WHO) survey conducted in 130 countries, COVID-19 has disrupted or halted critical mental health services in 93% of countries worldwide while the demand for mental health has increased. Considering that prior to the pandemic, the organization found that many countries were spending less than 2% of their national health budgets on mental health and struggling to meet their populations’ needs, the situation could become dire if ignored.
In South Africa, prior to the pandemic (2019), mental health was allocated 5% of the national health budget and only 50% of public hospitals offering mental health services had a psychiatrist and around 30% did not have a clinical psychologist.
A study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council during the first hard lockdown reported that 33% of South Africans were depressed, while 45% were fearful, and 29% were experiencing loneliness during the first lockdown period.
According to statistics recently released by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), as many as one in six South Africans suffer from anxiety, depression, or substance-use problems.
Their findings also reveal that adolescent mental health and depression has become of particular concern over the past year due to increased screen time, isolation, extended school closures, limited social interaction with peers, and witnessing how the negative effects of the pandemic on their families.
To support and encourage those suffering with mental health issues and to turn a spotlight on the importance of acknowledging, talking about and destigmatizing mental health, several leading figures have begun to come forward to share their own experiences.
One such leader is Yael Geffen, the CEO of Lew Geffen Sotheby’s International Realty in South Africa, who suffers from bipolar II and has spoken candidly about her personal journey. She challenges others to do the same.
“It still blows my mind that we are comfortable to talk about cancer, diabetes and cardiac disease and the associated prescribed medication, and yet, despite the horrifying global statistics, we are still so afraid to talk about mental health which should be seen as no different.
“It’s still very much a taboo subject with only a few celebrities and public figures coming forward with their own stories.”
Yael’s personal mental health journey began at age 22 when she was living in New York and began to feel severely depressed, anxious and even suicidal at times.
“I sought help immediately and, with medication, therapy and personal development, I have been able to create a beautiful life filled with a successful career, amazing relationships and family.
“Tragically I have lost loved ones who succumbed to their mental illness by taking their own lives and I can truly understand how they were feeling at the time. My message is that there IS a choice, there ARE resources and there IS help – you must just take that first step.
“We are very open about it in my workplace, and we are supportive of mental health days as this not only creates more loyalty but happier, healthier and more productive employees.
“Sure, my mental illness can be challenging at times, but it’s also what I consider my brilliant burden: one that allows me to be creative, highly functional and the best version of me – and I no longer carry shame about acknowledging it.
“In fact, I would like to inspire other leaders to come forward and share their stories. There is valid research that many entrepreneurs and business leaders suffer from mental illness and the studies actually show that it makes them better leaders.”
Another advocate for mental health is Mandy Herold, who is the Head of the Junior Prep at The Ridge School, an International Conscious Discipline Certified Instructor and The Connection Coach.
As a thought leader in the space of Social Emotional Learning, Mandy has been interviewed on eNCA about anxiety in children and what she is witnessing amongst students, parents and teachers in the school environment, as well as her clients.
“All of us experience anxiety. There is no such thing as an ‘anxious child’ and a ‘non-anxious child’ or an ‘anxious adult’ and a ‘non-anxious adult’.
“If you have a body, a brain and a nervous system, you will experience anxiety because it’s a physiological sensation; it’s your body’s natural response to stress. We tell children that it’s their body’s natural alarm system that warns them when ‘something is not okay’.
“Although it’s impossible to never experience anxiety, it often comes from an inability to name the emotion that you’re feeling.”
Having worked in schools for 20 years, 11 of which have been as the headmistress of a junior prep school (ages 5-9), Mandy believes that mental health needs to be on top of the agenda of every Governing body, Board meeting and staff meeting.
“Teachers have never worked harder and are under extraordinary pressure to get through the curriculum for children to be ready for the next grade. This is simply not fair. In the same way as some businesses have needed a period of recovery, schools need a recovery period too.”
“The focus in our schools cannot be solely on the academic offering; our Social Emotional Learning (SEL) needs to be explicit and authentic. We need to shift our focus from the traditional 3 R’s – reading, writing and arithmetic to REGULATION, RELATIONSHIPS and BUILDING RESILIENCE.
“Some of the behaviours we are seeing in the classroom are: low self-esteem, emotional outbursts, tearfulness, oppositional behaviour, much higher anxiety, lower frustration tolerance, paranoia (if anyone sneezes or coughs, you ‘have covid’) and an internal distractibility.
“Our children’s mental and emotional health was a concern before Covid-19, and this has now been heightened. The collective trauma that we have experienced/are experiencing needs to be front and centre in the weeks, months, and years ahead.
“Academics will only thrive when our children truly feel safe again. In the pyramid of learning, children must feel safe and connected before they can learn optimally. The ideal state for learning is high challenge, low stress, or relaxed alertness.
“At the same time, teachers are quietly suffering from burnout. Even the most experienced teachers are second-guessing themselves. They are putting on a brave face and showing up for their students but at what cost?
“With the current Level 1 reduced restrictions, schools are again playing catch up with sports fixtures, fund raisers, parent functions, cake sale and dress up days, all while the teachers are still having to police social distancing and correct mask wearing.
“Which means that as much as things feel like they’re ‘back to normal’ this is far from the case.
“Ultimately, as a society, we have to start having braver conversations about how we normalise our daily struggles with mental health. It’s okay not to be okay!”
Yael Geffen and Mandy Herold, who are both passionate mental health advocates, have collaborated to open this discussion with a complimentary live webinar discussing their experiences and sharing information and the tools they use to cope with live with mental health challenges.
It will be held on the 27th of October 2021 from 7pm to 8pm and all are welcome to attend (anonymous registration available). If you/your family/your colleagues are interested in attending, please register at https://bit.ly/MyBeautifulMind
If you or a loved one is suffering and needs urgent help, please contact SADAG on 0800 456 789.