Wednesday, 10 October 2018 is World Mental Health Day and a chance to reflect on what mental health means to society. “One of the greatest challenges we need to address is the stigma around mental health issues,” says Shona Sturgeon, Executive Committee Member of Cape Mental Health and Past President of the World Federation for Mental Health. As a member of the Rotary Club of Claremont’s Inner Wheel, she works closely with mental health organisations in the Western Cape to help people with these illnesses.

Mental health issues include both psychiatric problems and intellectual disability. “The stigma around mental health is huge,” Sturgeon explains. “It includes the assumption that all people with mental health issues are violent and dangerous, which is absolutely not true.” The stigma also refers to the perception that people living with mental illness cannot hold down a job, can never improve, and cannot be trusted. “A factor that plays into it is that mental health issues are sometimes accompanied by ‘weird’ symptoms like tremors or sleepiness that are caused by medication, not even by the illness itself.”

The stigma hampers the ability of people living with the illness to live full lives. “These individuals say that the stigma causes more disability than the condition itself,” remarks Sturgeon. It affects the way they are treated, and their ability to get a job and accommodation. Many of them dare not tell anyone about their condition, so that mental health issues remain hidden. This results in a lack of pressure on government to ensure that they are accommodated in hospitals and the community. It also affects their self-confidence and quality of life. “Mental health service users are so often the disadvantaged of the disadvantaged,” states Sturgeon.

To overcome the stigma around mental health issues, it is necessary for people to know as much as they can about illnesses like bipolar disorder and schizophrenia, and to speak openly about it. “Because of the stigma, people don’t talk and because they don’t talk, the stigma remains,” Sturgeon comments. A realisation of how common mental health issues are would also help: one in four people worldwide struggle with mental illness. “Mental health issues are a lot more common than we realise, and we can address it simply by treating mental health service users as human beings, with dignity and understanding, as we would treat other people with chronic illnesses.”

Claremont Inner Wheel has engaged with and donated to Cape Mental Health for many years. They contribute to counselling initiatives, social support opportunities, education initiatives, and professional support and upskilling for health service users in Cape Town and beyond.

For more information on Rotary Club of Claremont and the various community projects and initiatives they are involved with, please visit https://www.facebook.com/RotaryClubofClaremont/.

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