By Lizette Rabe

Spring has sprung. And hope springs eternal. And yes, it is October. Not a month to despair, but a month of new hope and new beginnings.

They may be clichés, but they are spot-on.

University of Stellenbosch professor and Quote This Woman database member Lizette Rabe. Picture: Izak de Vries/Lapa Publishers

And they are so necessary, especially for 2020’s October. The coronavirus causes a physical disease for those who are unfortunate to become infected, but it affects us all on a psychological level. Call that the silent pandemic. Maybe the next DSM, short for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, might even have a description for it. Covid-19 Disorder, or Covid-19 Stress Syndrome, or Covid-19 Burnout.

Because yes, for those already struggling with mental ill-health, these past months have been rough. For those who do not know the extent of suffering from a mental health disorder, now you might understand just a little bit about anxiety, insecurity, loneliness, and even depression. As Doctor Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General of the World Health Organisation (WHO) said: “We are already seeing the consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic on people’s mental wellbeing, and this is just the beginning.”

We should take the same preventative measures regarding our mental health as we take regarding the physical pandemic. Just as we protect ourselves against the virus with sanitation protocols, physical distancing and wearing masks, we should also follow mental health safety measures. One would be to actively break that silence and stigma around mental health. October, as South Africa’s Mental Health Awareness Month, with the WHO’s World Mental Health Awareness Day on 10 October, is your opportunity to do so.

This is your chance to raise awareness around the importance of mental health. It can be done in many ways, but one is the way we talk about mental health. As some activists in the USA stress we should talk about brain health rather than mental health, because it makes the concept less abstract and more concrete. Because, indeed, our most important organ, our brain, needs medical attention. Those-so important neurotransmitters are absent, meaning you respond abnormally to what should be normal. And then it may start to escalate and become worse if you do not seek help. Fact is: would you ignore the symptoms of a physical illness and think it might go away by itself?

What are the symptoms you might experience when your brain starts to signal that all is not well? They include feeling sad, anxious, or “empty”, a loss of interest or pleasure in what you used to do, hopelessness, feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness and self-reproach, sleeping too much or not enough, eating too much or too little, irritability and difficulty concentrating, and lastly, even thoughts of suicide, called suicide ideation.

If you experience these symptoms, take them seriously. Seek help. They won’t go away by themselves. Indeed, they will become worse, even developing to a life-threatening stage.

Also remember: These symptoms are not your typical Sunday night blues, feeling down or disappointed. They are symptoms of real illnesses. In fact, that most important organ of yours is sending out SOS signals to help it turn its malfunctioning around. This can be done by either a clinical psychologist, who can help you with cognitive behavioural therapy, for example, or a psychiatrist, a medical doctor who specialises in psychiatry, who can also prescribe medication if your condition is such that your brain needs medication to support its normal working.

Make this your message this October: We take preventative measures not to be infected by the Covid-19 virus; and we should also take preventative measures to protect us from mental ill-health.

There are already many indications that South Africans, as the rest of the world, are mentally struggling as a side-effect of Covid-19 and all its economic and social consequences. But we can and must take control. Talk the talk. And, yes, walk the walk.

Be an ambassador of HOPE


You can literally walk the walk by participating in an annual walkathon that raises awareness of the importance of mental health. This year it will be virtual, precisely because of the pandemic. The Hope Hike, also the Hope Bike for mountain bike enthusiasts, will happen on Sunday, 4 October, which means you have all of October to spread the word of HOPE.

It is organised by the Ithemba Foundation (ithemba means hope), a non-profit with two public benefit goals, namely raising awareness of mental health, specifically depression and related diseases such as anxiety disorders, and raising funds for research.If you feel some of the symptoms mentioned above, you will be amazed how self-care can contribute to feeling better about yourself. So join Ithemba on the Hope Hike or Hope Bike, become an Ambassador of Hope, and most of all, make a difference.

And always remember, in the words of Barack Obama: “To anyone out there who’s hurting – it’s not a sign of weakness to ask for help. It’s a sign of strength.”

Lizette Rabe is a professor at Stellenbosch University and founded the Ithemba Foundation.

This year’s Hope Hike and Hope Bike, Ithemba’s annual awareness raising event in October as Mental Health Awareness Month, will be virtual, which means anyone, anywhere, can participate and make a difference. For information go to https://www.entryninja.com/events/67042-hope-hike-2020 or email ithembafoundation@mweb.co.za. Ten Fitbits are up for grabs in a lucky draw when you post your selfie on Ithemba’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/IthembaFoundation1/.

For help and information:
Lifeline 24-hour crisis line: 0861 322 322
Search for a mental health professional in your area: www.mentalhealthsa.org.za
SADAG: 24-hour helpline: 0800 456 789, 0800 567 567, or sms 31393
World Health Organisation
SA Federation for Mental Health

Main photo by Cathy VanHeest on Unsplash