20/11/2016 17:29 SAST

You Probably Need To See A Therapist And That's OK

Mental illness is illness, it's not a reflection of your character.

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Often, it takes an outsider or family member to recognise a decline in a person’s mental wellbeing.

Researchers say around a third of all South African adults will suffer from some form of mental health disorder over the course of their lives. Still, many people don't recognise the signs of mental illness, either in themselves or in their loved ones.

"People don't want to accept they aren't coping well with their problems. They don't want to be judged — by themselves or others," says Naazia Ismail, a spokesperson for the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG). "In their mind they're coping, they're managing. But when we look at their family, their work life or financial situation, it tells us otherwise."

Ismail says there is also deep stigma around needing counselling or taking medication for mental illness. Many people still view mental illness as a reflection of weak character, she says, but mental illness is illness.

"It is an illness that needs treatment and medication in order for you to feel better. If someone had diabetes you wouldn't tell them to snap out of it," says Ismail.

Shai Friedland, a clinical psychologist in private practice in Hurlingham Manor, Johannesburg, says any sustained changes to a person's normal functioning could signal mental illness. These could be changes in sleeping or eating patterns, how a person manages their relationships or how they perform at work or school. Forgetfulness, a lack of concentration, or spending a lot of time alone could also be signs of mental illness.

"Are you angry a lot of the time? Does you mood seem down, do you seem more anxious than you were before? If it's prolonged and it's really impacting your life and your functioning, I would see that as a red flag," says Friedland.

Often, it takes an outsider or family member to recognise a decline in a person's mental wellbeing.

"You ever notice how you can see the obvious answers to other people's problems, but they never seem to twig them themselves? An outside perspective is really crucial in many cases of recognising mental health problems," says Gregory Eccles, a counselling psychologist who practices in Greenstone Hill, Johannesburg.

For Eccles, the best thing you can do for a loved one who may be struggling with a mental illness is to offer support without judgement.

"Make every effort to reach out to them, listen to their stories as empathetically as possible — listen to understand them, rather than to think up responses. Don't try to force solutions upon them, but there's no harm in talking about the possible benefits of options like therapy or counselling. Being a supportive listener and non-judgemental friend can do wonders," he says.

Claire Jaynes, a counselling psychologist in Pine Park, Johannesburg, says you don't need to hit rock-bottom before turning to counselling or therapy, nor do you need to have a diagnosable mental illness.

"I believe everyone can benefit from therapy — it can foster deeper self-awareness and personal growth, improve understanding of self, create insight and bolster your strengths," she says.

Jaynes recommends finding a therapist who is a good fit and committing to one to three sessions to determine whether therapy is necessary or beneficial for you.

"If people in your life are worried about you, that should be taken seriously. If you've ever thought you may need therapy, you probably do," she says.

You can contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group through its website or by calling the toll free counselling line on 0800 2122 23.