An Open Letter on Mental Health on World Health Day

By Reabetsoe Buys

World Health Day was founded by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to raise awareness about our overall health and well-being.  As we celebrate this day again, we cannot ignore how we think of, prioritise and navigate the issue of mental health. Very often when we refer to health and well-being we focus on physical health – whether we look and feel healthy and whether we are free from illness. Meanwhile, mental health has been proven to be just as important as physical health.

Perhaps the reason we find it easier to focus on our physical health is because our physical bodies are easily assessed when we are unwell and we have tangible symptoms to report to our doctor. We go to doctors and report a pain or injury, and they are able to conduct an examination which yields some answers. People around us can also understand and tend to be more sympathetic when they hear you are struggling with a dislocated disc in your back or a bad flu. On the other hand, mental health is not always “seen”, making it hard for people to express what is actually going on internally and for others to truly understand that there is “something wrong”. For many of us who struggle with our mental health, this difficulty to explain or describe what we may be thinking or feeling, makes it feel even more lonely and overwhelming.

Sadly, there remains a great stigma around mental health which is also why many people who struggle are still reluctant to speak about it. In the past, mental health has been associated with negative connotations - being “weak”, “unstable”, “troubled”, even “crazy”. Even though strides have been made in mental health education and resources, people would still rather keep mental health issues under wraps, struggling through the process of healing in an isolated bubble rather than being exposed to the world. People around us still fear being judged and misunderstood simply because they are experiencing mental health difficulties and need extra support through it.

Many people don’t realise that our physical health is inevitably connected to our mental health too. It has been found that poor mental health can be a risk factor for chronic physical conditions or harmful behaviours. This also works the other way, where individuals with chronic physical conditions are at risk of developing poor mental health or mental health challenges as a result of being unwell. So there is actually no way of thinking of our health without considering our mental and emotional health as a major part of that – it simply does not work.

On this World Health Day, let us not keep ignoring or minimising the role of our mental health. Our mental health is vital to our well-being as it affects the way we think, the way we feel and the way we behave in our everyday lives and relationships. Our mental health is also responsible for how we deal with stress, how we relate to others and how we overcome difficult circumstances. Surely this impact means that it should be highly prioritised, all the time? Surely it means that we cannot afford to let mental health keep falling by the wayside when we have important conversations around healing? In fact, the WHO states that “there is no health without mental health.”

As South Africans we can all play a role in mental health education and ending the stigma against mental health. If anything, the Covid-19 pandemic has put the spotlight on mental health, forcing us to be more aware and enabling us to take better care of ourselves and those in need. Here are some ways in which we can play our part, no matter how small, in prioritising mental health and work towards eradicating the stigma:

  • Educate ourselves on mental health, what it is, different mental health conditions, what to look for and where to go for support
  • Educate and support others, especially in our own circles and communities
  • Become an advocate for mental health in our own spaces
  • Learn about mental health first aid - how we can assist those in crisis
  • Speak openly about mental health as telling our stories, could help others in need or those who are struggling at alone
  • Familiarise ourselves with mental health resources which we can turn to in times of need

Even though there are still many improvements to be made, there is no doubt that we can continue making consistent strides towards raising mental health awareness, ending the stigma around mental health and ensuring that mental health becomes and remains a national public health priority moving forward.  It is the foundation for everything we do.