“What’s wrong with you?” asked Leah’s aunt.

“I’m depressed. I feel like things are getting too much for me,” Leah responded.

“Depressed? You look fine to me. You’re just lazy. Get up and do your chores.”

Unfortunately, this is how many people, like Leah’s aunt, perceive mental illness. Some in society believe that if you don’t look physically ill, then you’re not sick at all.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that depression is the leading cause of mental illness, affecting 246 million people across the globe with suicide being the second leading cause of death for individuals aged 15-29.

Depression may be caused by various factors including external events, genetic inheritance, an imbalance of brain chemicals, certain medical conditions, various medications and substance abuse.

Depression can make one feel very alone, inside a prison, feeling helpless and drained at all times. People with depression feel trapped in a cage of sadness and fear and it feels as though people around them are always happy and free from burdens. They become angry because no one realises how much they’re suffering. It feels like they’re being dragged into the depths of the ocean with no hope in sight.

How could you not want to help someone who experiences such anguish?

Finding help isn’t easy

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) reports that even though 85% of patients who suffer from mental illness depend on public health services, there are only 18 beds for every 100 000 people available in hospitals.

Cassey Chambers, operations manager of SADAG explains that, “only 27% of South Africans reporting severe mental illness ever receive treatment. This means that nearly three-quarters of these sufferers are not accessing any form of mental health at all.”

If you know someone suffering from a mental illness, it will be incredibly difficult to treat them if they don’t have private healthcare. This makes it even more important that you support those in need, and allow them to talk openly and honestly, because it may be the only outlet they have.

Even though there is a severe lack of services, it seems that society’s perception towards mental illness is also affecting people’s state of mental health.

The stigma surrounding this issue poses a challenge towards helping treat depression. Chambers explains that, “in Zulu, there is not even a word for ‘depression’ – it’s basically not deemed a real illness in the African culture. As a result, sufferers are afraid of being discriminated against, disowned by their families or even fired from work, should they admit to having a problem. There is still the perception that someone with a mental illness is crazy, dangerous or weak. Because there is often an absence of physical symptoms with mental illness, it is considered ‘not real’, a figment of the imagination.”

Educate yourself

The South African Federation for Mental Health aims to protect the rights of those with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities. A psychosocial disability refers to the effect that a mental illness has on someone’s ability to participate fully in life. Individuals may struggle with education, training or in achieving their goals. Depression would be an example of a psychosocial ability.

An intellectual disability is characterised by significant limitations in both intellectual functioning and abilities, which refers to everyday functions. It occurs during early childhood or adolescence and limitations include problem solving, practical understanding, reasoning and learning. Down syndrome would be an example of an intellectual disability.

Signs for mental health problems include when someone is eating or sleeping too much or too little or when they pull away from people and usual activities. Notice if they have low or no energy and feel helpless or hopeless, if their emotions are all over the place or if they have an inability to perform daily tasks, such as getting ready for work or school. These symptoms can happen slowly over a period of time, which is why they often go unnoticed but it is important to look out for each other because people who are depressed have difficulty asking for help.

How can you help?

To help with someone who suffers from depression, one should be supportive and listen. Create a safe space for them to express themselves.

“What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candour, more unashamed conversation,” says awarding-winning actress Glenn Close.

It seems Leah’s aunt didn’t understand what Leah was experiencing. If her aunt had been educated and made aware of mental illness, she could’ve provided the support that Leah needed.

We should leave no room for judgement and simply listen. We should accept that once in a while someone needs a helping hand; you could be that helping hand.

Educate yourself and try to understand that sometimes things aren’t always black and white. Judge less; understand more. Let’s start with the little things.

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Tell us: How would you respond to someone who says they’re depressed?