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30 September 2004

Is there hope for the mentally ill?

One in four people worldwide will suffer from a mental disorder some time in their lives. Effective treatment exists, but only a fraction of South Africans have access to it. During Mental Health Awareness month we look at this growing problem.

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One in four people worldwide will suffer from a mental or behavioural disorder some time in their lives. This means that 450 million people worldwide are currently suffering from one or more of these conditions, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Although there are no accurate statistics in South Africa, small preliminary studies suggest that the prevalence rates in this country are similar.

One study in a rural coloured community in the Western Cape randomly selected 481 adults and found that 27.1% were suffering from a mental illness. Depressive and anxiety disorders were the most common.

The cost to countries is huge. According to the Mental Health Information Centre (MHIC), direct costs include the costs of treatment and rehabilitation as covered by medical aid and other managed health care schemes. Indirect costs include loss in productivity, decreased motivation, increased absenteeism, increased staff turnover, early retirement, safety risks, accidents, interpersonal conflict, suicide and the cost of inadequate or inappropriate treatment.

Treatment effective
Fortunately the advances in research and science have greatly improved the understanding and treatment of mental illnesses. Early diagnosis and treatment of mental disorders can lead to rapid recovery and can substantially reduce economic and personal costs of illness. The WHO estimates that 60% of people with depression can recover with appropriate treatment and 80% of those with schizophrenia can be free of relapse after one year of treatment and family intervention.

But despite the good news, two thirds of those with a known mental disorder never seek help from a health professional and less than a quarter of those affected actually receive professional treatment.

In fact, many do not even tell their partners or family members that they are suffering. A recent survey in South Africa has shown that as many as 42% of people with mental illness did not tell their family that they were suffering and 22% had not told their partners.

Even if people seek help, they are often not treated appropriately. Various reasons have been suggested, including a lack of resources, facilities and funding. Many medical aids also discriminate against the mentally ill by allocating inadequate funding for appropriate treatment.

But according to the MHIC, the single most significant reason why people do not seek help or do not receive appropriate care remains the stigma surrounding mental illness.

Where to go for help
For more information on mental illness or referral to a mental health professional, contact the Mental Health Information Centre (021) 938 9229. – (Ilse Pauw, Health24)

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