Mental health illness is something that many people shy away from talking about or addressing, one of the main reasons for that is how society has made it a taboo illness to suffer from or people avoiding the stigma that comes with being mentally ill thus shying away from disclosing their experiences and how they got assistance thereof. The month of October is mental health awareness month in South Africa where awareness is raised and people are educated about mental illness, with attempts to try and reduce the stigma and discrimination people with mental issues often experience. A mental illness is a condition affecting the mental state of a person to such an extent that it causes significant distress to the person and produces impairment in the person’s ability to function socially, occupationally, and in terms of their self-care. Mental illnesses can be caused by a reaction to environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination of these. According to the Mental Health Care Act of 2002, 1 in 5 people suffer or will suffer mental illness, however, with proper care and treatment many individuals learn to cope or recover from mental illness.
There are three types of mental illness which can be identified as ‘major mental illness’ which comprises schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, and severe depression. Many of these conditions are chronic and the person usually needs to take medication over long periods, in some cases, it might even lead to hospitalization where they will get further professional help. The other two types of mental illness are less serious and are cases of depression and anxiety (formerly known as neurosis or neurotic disorders) which are often a result of stress. These two types are the common ones among many people and treatment can be acquired through counseling or therapy. Doctors, social workers, and psychologists are important mental health professionals that can assist people with these issues.
I recall having a conversation with my friend regarding therapy late last year, she was already attending therapy sessions with her psychologist and told me about it and how it has helped her deal with some issues that she has been facing. At the time I was just being curious and wanted to know more about this therapy and what happens there. I have to admit that lack of knowledge made me judge people that attended therapy sessions. To me, it felt like they did not know how to deal with their problems and were just spoilt. I remember telling my friend that I will try out one session this year and see what the fuss was about. The year started and I got too busy to remember what I had committed myself to do until we were on lockdown. There wasn’t much to do during lockdown which ultimately forced a person to reflect and deal with their problems or feelings they have been suppressing. Certain thoughts that would upset me would pop into my mind but with my son with me, I would get distracted and focus on him or whatever it is that he was showing me. The pivotal point for me was when I had to leave my son in Cape Town and return to Pretoria for work. The office only opened for three weeks and was closed again. Leaving me with not much to do but be stuck with my thoughts and feelings. I went through a phase where every day it would be the same thoughts in my head which would leave me crippled with sadness and in tears. It got to a point where I was just tired of crying and being sad, I wanted the pain to go away, I wanted to be my happy self again and life to go back to normal but I did not know how to do that.
Something in my head clicked therapy, after all, it had been something I wanted to experience so I thought this is the perfect time for me to put this to the test. I’ll go for one session and if I felt better then I would go again. I went on google and started searching for therapists nearby and when I made the call I asked for a therapist who has been practicing for the longest. At this point I had committed myself to be open to the experience, I did not know what I would say or do upon arriving but all I knew was that I was going to be completely honest about how I feel so that should this ‘therapy thing’ not work for me, I’d know that I did not cheat it. I was allocated a psychologist and my date. The nice thing about the commencement of my therapy sessions is the fact that it was during lockdown so I did not have to ask for time off from work to go to my sessions or explain to people why I am leaving the office early, there were no second or third opinions from outsiders that would make me change my mind. It was just me and this decision.
I went to my first consultation and I remember sitting down on this couch, there was a candle that was lit which made me relax a bit, there was a bookshelf which kept me a bit occupied as I would keep browsing there to check which books this lady was reading and I saw a few authors that I was familiar with which also made me a bit comfortable in knowing that at least there are a few things that we have in common with this person. The session commenced and my therapist asked me why I am there? I was so confused and I said I don’t know. She then simplified the question by asking me how I’m feeling that day. When I started opening up about how I was feeling that day it became better and easier for her to ask follow-up questions which led to her being able to understand where my mindset was at the time and what was the underlying problem that was making me feel this way. At the end of the session, I could feel that there was a weight that had been lifted off my shoulders but I was still not okay. We decided to schedule weekly appointments and that’s how my journey with therapy started.
I am someone that lives in their head most of the time, I am not one to speak, I find it better to journal things down and tend to think that I have made peace or found solutions with situations that I would be facing, however from the few therapy sessions I have attended, I have discovered that having someone you trust that you can talk to has helped me a lot. Not only did my therapist give me a safe space to share my feelings, thoughts, hopes, and dreams, she also helped me with my insecurities and identified coping mechanisms that work well for me from everything that I have shared with her, she also gave great advise on how to deal with certain issues from a professional point of view which I must add that they have been extremely helpful.
My therapy sessions continued but after a month of attending weekly sessions, I made great progress and my sleeping patterns were starting to get better. We went from meeting weekly to meeting every fourth night. We have recently decided to start with monthly visits to unpack what’s on my mind as she feels like I am at a good place in my life where I can make rational decisions and have acquired some coping skills to deal with different situations in a manner that is good for my mental health. One of the things that she would echo in our sessions is the importance of self-care and how we take priority in taking care of others and making sure that they are fine while forgetting to take care of ourselves. I have learned to put myself first and be selfish with my time, do things that make me happy, and surround myself with people that make me happy. Anything that is outside of that sphere would not get so much of my attention. I have also learned how to distinguish between things that need my time and attention and toxic behaviors that would be detrimental to my growth and peace of mind.
My psychologist advised that she doesn’t like to label her patients as suffering from ‘something’ because of how it is easier for us to identify ourselves by what we’ve been labeled with, however, I think she once mentioned it in passing that I was suffering from depression and anxiety which started from the period where I lost my mother, there were past triggers that would come to play and other factors that led to my depression but the main one was losing my mother and not knowing how to cope with the loss, letting her go and leaving a happy life without feeling the void of no longer having a mother.
Psychologists and therapy can be accessible to anyone with or without medical aid. Those that do have medical aid can just contact their service providers to find out if their plan has the benefit of mental health care, and find out more on how many sessions are covered and if there are any co-payments involved. For those that do not have medical aid, the primary health care clinics, and service points are available for assistance as there are registered professional nurses that have training in clinical diagnosis and treatment of common illnesses including mental illness. There are usually medical doctors (General Practitioners) at the larger Community Health Centres. The Mental Health Care Act of 2002 states that due to the intensive nature of mental health care, primary health care service providers currently mainly provide a screening, emergency management, and referral service for people with mental disorders. They also provide follow-up care to people with chronic mental illnesses.
From my experiences with therapy, I would highly recommend that people start attending it, one does not need to have a particular problem or go through something to attend. There is a lot that is happening in the world, in our lives, there are a lot of thoughts that go through our minds daily, for me, I believe that therapy simplifies the way we deal with our everyday lives and struggles. What we might perceive as a mountain might be resolved like it was only a molehill. We tend to take care of every other part of our bodies but the mind while everything starts and ends with the mind. It is okay not to be okay, life happens and no one promised us a good life with no challenges, it is up to us how we deal with what has been thrown at us. Self-care and self-preservation should be something that we prioritize in our lives so that we can perform at our optimum and live a longer stress-free life.
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