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By Ciara Shaye Seaman

The month of October has been declared Mental Health Awareness Month in South Africa. However, there will likely be social media posts about it in the month ahead due to the United States celebrating Mental Health Awareness Month in May, so Die Matie decided that this would be a fitting opportunity to discuss the importance of mental health.  

If you are active on social media or pay attention to popular culture, you are probably aware of the rise in popularity of mental health awareness. If not, this is a great place to start. Mental health is integral to everything we are as humans; it influences our emotional, social and psychological prosperity by affecting how we handle our emotions, responsibilities and relationships. 

With mental health affecting every aspect of our lives, it inevitably means that it is influenced by a wide variety of factors. Your mental health is not a cloaked figure crouching in the shadows of your mind’s basement. Struggling with mental health is not limited to the cinematic depictions of screaming, constrained patients in white rooms—that depiction is ruefully offensive and a large motivation for mental health awareness. 

Academic pressures and the weight of responsibilities ­towards yourself and the people around you are normal conditions that play a role in your mental health. Little things that you never pay attention to may build up and lead to feelings of despondency or anxiety that you don’t seem to understand. Often, people can say things randomly that bother you and trigger feelings of sadness or anger within you. You may not be able to pinpoint the motivation, but they really stick around. This uncertainty can be so easy to ignore, and many fall into the routine of pushing these feelings aside and moving on with life. It may feel foolproof, but it truly is not, and that is why mental health awareness is ­important.

STUDENT SUPPORT SYSTEMS Students are encouraged to support one another. Photo: Carmi Wentzel

Mental health awareness ­involves education about the causes and effects of mental distress, influences on mental health, and how to identify when you or someone else is struggling. Elmarie Kruger, the acting head of the Unit for Psychotherapeutic and Support Services at Stellenbosch University (SU), mentioned that mental health awareness activities are important because they “challenge the myths and stigmas surrounding mental health issues”.

Kruger expanded on the ­value that mental health awareness programmes hold for those struggling to “recognise and better understand their own symptoms or experiences”. These programmes are informative and offer security to those who feel unsure or lost in their situation, whilst also offering them the support to navigate what they are dealing with. 

Another beneficial aspect of mental health awareness is its ability to “encourage the recognition of early signs and symptoms of mental health illnesses”, as mentioned by Kruger. Being alert to the indications that there might be something wrong can really help those struggling to get the help they need. Knowing what to look for helps you to look out for yourself and the people around you, which goes a long way in improving the welfare of our community. 

As mentioned by Kruger, mental health awareness plays a pivotal role in the destigmatisation of mental health illnesses. Struggling with your mental health has been painted in a secretive, reclusive light for so many years and many have not changed their perspective on that idea. 

Every single day, we are each faced with challenges that have an impact on our emotional and mental wellbeing. Mental health issues are not limited to the ­fringes of society, and many people deal with them throughout their day. It is not something to brush aside with the thought that it will never concern you. 

You do not need to have a PhD in clinical psychology to be there for someone who is having a hard time; you do not even need to understand exactly what they are feeling. What we all need is simply the compassion and willingness to be there for those who need us and who just need people to pay attention and try.

FINDING STRENGTH Awareness strengthens the community. Photo: Carmi Wentzel

The need to educate one another on this topic extends beyond a month in a year, but it is a good place to start. As May begins and you see more posts about mental health awareness, perhaps pay more attention to their content and what you can learn from them. However, be careful of the impression they leave on you. People often try to get your attention by stating something boldly, which you may then take to be the truth. This may lead to ­misappropriation and misrepresentation of mental health illnesses as well as desensitisation towards the topic because of the constant bombardment of media saying the same thing. 

Mental health is important, and we should all strive to be more aware of it. Active engagement with the topic helps us to ­understand it better and to be more observant toward the people in our environment. Having conversations with people who are struggling, and with those who are not, is vital to spreading an atmosphere of acceptance and compassion. 

If you or anyone you know is struggling, please make use of the extensive resources provided by the university. The Centre for Student Counselling and Development hosts activities and programmes that offer education on mental health and what you can do to help, as well as support for those who need it. Their contact details are on the university’s website as well as on MySUN.

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