Accessing Mental Health Care In South Africa - SACAP
Applied Psychology

Accessing Mental Health Care

May 17, 2022 | By Saranne Durham
Accessing Mental Health Care

We know we need to exercise to keep our bodies healthy. We aim to eat a balanced diet and ideally manage to sleep enough. However, often neglected is our mental health. Every now and then, we might need a bit of help to keep it in good shape.

In this article we unpack what mental health is, why caring for your mental health is important and a few things that commonly prevent people from seeking care.

What is Mental Health?

Our mental health determines how we think, feel and interact. It also determines how we relate to others as well as the choices we make. Essentially, mental health is a place of well-being. A healthy mental state means that you’re able to manage your usual stresses of life and function effectively.

“Our mental health determines how we think, feel, interact and relate to the world around us.”

Why is Mental Health Important?

It’s often side-lined due to historic misunderstanding and prejudices. Which results in many people only seeking assistance once things have got to a crisis point. One of the many challenges is the assumption that our mental wellbeing is automatically ok and doesn’t need to be maintained. So, we are not taught how to monitor it and what the warning signs of an imbalance are.

Mental health significantly impacts our everyday life from childhood, into adolescence and throughout our adult lives. It affects how we feel, think and act. Therefore, our emotional responses, physical health and overall well-being. An unawareness of your mental health wellness can also result in a misdiagnosis of its physical symptoms. For example, anxiety can cause facial numbness and tingling. Which could be misdiagnosed as a neurological problem and treated accordingly.

Mental health can determine how efficiently and effectively you function or interact with others. This could impact the wellbeing of those around us such as family, friends and community. Usually, anxiety causes someone to withdraw. However, some individuals react with disproportionate aggression and anger. Which, instead of being seen as an anxiety symptom, is labelled a tantrum or a characteristic of who someone is.

What causes Mental Health Issues?

It is important to remember that mental health issues are universal. Anyone can be affected regardless of age, social, cultural or economic circumstances. Although those with more stressors are at higher risk. Some mental health illnesses, like depression, anxiety and substance use, are quite common.

“Mental Health challenges are universally common.”

At some point in your life, it’s likely that you could experience mental health challenges which impact your everyday functioning. Scientists are still learning about the causes of mental health imbalances. Different mental health problems have different causes, generally we believe they are caused by a combination of:

  1. Biological Factors, for example brain chemistry or inheriting a disposition for a particular problem.
  2. Life Experiences such as having many stressors or life difficulties or experiencing one, or many, traumatic events.

“People with lots of stressors are at a higher risk of mental health challenges.”

What could cause Mental Health to decline?

Social isolation and loneliness can also negatively impact one’s mental health. It is completely normal to feel like things are not ok, especially when life throws curve balls at us. This means that some things that would normally be considered “warning signs” are just ways that we are adapting to a changed world. Consequently, it is important to take stock of your own emotional state and remain connected to those around you. Therefore, if you generally feel like you cannot cope with daily life and recognise a few signs below, it might be time to reach out to someone.

Possible Warning Signs

  1. Sleeping or eating less or more than usual.
  2. Low energy.
  3. Uncontrolled emotional outbursts, unusual mood swings and/or continually feeling on edge.
  4. Disengaging from people and usual activities.
  5. Feeling hopeless, helpless or depressed.
  6. Continually having negative thoughts.
  7. Feeling unusually confused, forgetful, anxious, worried or scared.
  8. Battling to perform everyday tasks.
  9. Feeling numb.
  10. Reoccurring thoughts of harming yourself or others.

“People differ in how long it takes to reach a crisis point and what causes one.”

The Impact of Not Seeking Help

As the World Health Organisation states, mental health is a state of well-being where we are able to realise our own abilities and cope with the normal stresses of life. As well as, work productively and make contributions to our community.

It is not only about not having mental health problems, but rather promoting it as a crucial part of living a happy, healthy and fulfilling life. Experiencing poor mental health over a long time can also impact other areas of our lives, like our self-image and self-esteem, our relationships with people around us and our enjoyment of and productivity at work.

High levels of continual stress has also been linked to serious health consequences such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. Also, depending on what kind of challenge we are facing, waiting a long time before addressing it could make it more difficult to overcome in the long run.

“Our Mental Health is critical to living a happy, healthy and fulfilling life.”

Which Mental Health Professional should I see?

Each of these branches have specialities within them. For example, a professional may focus on a specific age group (children, adolescents, adults or elderly). Or a field such as education, family or a traumatic event.

  • Psychiatrists are medical doctors who have specialised in diagnosing, treating and preventing mental illnesses. In addition to possibly prescribing medication, they may refer you to a psychologist for psychotherapy (talking therapy).
  • Psychologists focus on diagnosing and treating mental, emotional and behaviour problems. They develop treatment plans, provide counselling and usually meet regularly with someone to help them cope with problems and practically adjust habits or behaviour through psychotherapy. Psychologists might refer you to a psychiatrist, if medication is necessary.   
  • Counsellors (called Registered Counsellors in South Africa) provide short term support, usually in the cases of trauma. They provide psychological screening and intervention for the purposes of aiding better functioning. If necessary, they can refer you to an appropriate specialist.
  • Social Workers provide support for individuals and families during difficult periods. They focus on assessing circumstances to improve outcomes of people’s lives. They also assist with implementing measures to safeguard vulnerable people from harm by taking on an advocate and guiding role.

Four Reasons why People don’t seek Mental Health Care

1. Stigma

The fear of stigma, discrimination and bringing shame on ourselves or family often prevents us from seeking help. Psychology and the mental health field in general is filled with misconceptions that can make us feel like outsiders. Or afraid to talk about our emotional and psychological troubles. Being afraid or fearing the potential results of seeking mental health care is normal, take courage and reach out. 

2. Unnecessary

Feeling a bit down or like you battling to cope, can be a normal part of life. So, when do you seek help? The simplest guide is to seek help when you feel like the problem is affecting your ability to cope with usual everyday activities. This might include keeping up with school, work or university. It could be interacting and connecting with your friends, family and community. Alternatively, battling to take care of your own nutrition, sleep or hygiene or struggling to stay interested in things you usually enjoy.

3. It’s Difficult

Regardless of how good or bad you feel, doing something the first time is difficult. And when you are feeling particularly bad, persistence could be very difficult. The result is often we wait to do something and while we wait we have time to think. Then start to doubt ourselves, how bad it is or spiral in negative feelings, feeling ashamed or hopeless. Thereby, making it even more difficult. This is when having the courage to share with someone close to you and ask for assistance or calling a counselling line might be what you need.

4. Practicality

The affordability of getting help (therapy and/or medication) can make accessing care difficult for many of us. Services may be too expensive or not available thereby preventing us from accessing them. Fortunately, there are a number of free services available that are accessible by telephone.

Being Part of the Solution

SACAP offers five mental health care courses which will qualify you to be “work-ready” and equipped for employment within the South African field of counselling and psychology. SACAP’s Bachelor of Psychology graduates are able to register with the HPCSA as registered counsellors. They also have the option of registering for the SACAP Master’s programme.

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