No-one would dare propose that the undertaking of postgraduate studies, which requires extensive research and academic writing is a walk in the park. Yet, we seem to raise an eyebrow at those who crack under the pressure. Regardless of being more informed and enlightened than ever, we still judge those who succumb to the adverse pressure of academic performance.
I’d like to take this opportunity to have an honest conversation about mental health. I wish to thwart the idea that depression and anxiety, in particular, are symptoms of weakness. Or that either of these states of mind is in any way abnormal. Have you ever met a person who has not had a depressive episode? Or experienced anxiety? Me either.
“Mental health is a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stressors of life, can work productively and fruitfully and is able to make a contribution to his or her community.” (WHO, 2015)
One in Six in South Africa
According to South African Depression and Anxiety Group’s (SADAG) website, reporting an article in the Sunday Times* South Africa is in a state of mental health crisis. Recent studies produced the following fact: As many as one in six South Africans suffer from anxiety, depression or substance-use problems. And that’s not taking into account depression and anxiety triggered by crime or motor vehicle accidents.
Students are under more and more pressure to perform. Reference to numerous studies suggests there is a 70% increase in students who are admitting to suffering mentally during their academic programs. Add to that: greater unemployment, the cost of living is high, money is often scarce or in abundance, diversity issues are prevalent, political status is uncertain and social media is ubiquitous. And yet, local government health care has little to no capacity to treat these issues. The result? Students suffer invisibly with no recourse to manage their mental health. This renders them feeling useless and debilitated to the point that they will be unable to complete their tertiary education.
Even though the 70% rise in reported mental health issues is staggering, the fact that there is an acknowledgement of the condition is quite heartening. Acknowledgement is a baby step to eradicating the ugly stigma attached to mental health conditions.
The Onus is on Us
The buck stops here. We are all responsible for our own mental well-being. It is up to us to educate ourselves in the signs, symptoms and treatment in order to manage our state of mind. The most important thing is that you identify stress early. Acknowledge it and take action to reduce it immediately.
The reality is, you can’t manage stress unless you can identify that it’s happening and having a detrimental effect on your overall performance – usually in all aspects of your life.
Step 1: Identify Stress
Physical Warning Signs
- Panic attacks
- Trouble falling or staying asleep
- Sudden weight gain/weight loss
- Irregular bowel movements
- Involuntary twitching or shaking
- Reduced libido
- Heartburn/ indigestion
- Muscle aches
- Chest pain
- Tense muscles
Emotional Warning Signs
- Feeling overwhelmed often
- Lack of patience (agitation/irritability)
- Sense of isolation/irritability
- No longer have the desire to participate in things you used to enjoy
- Extreme pessimism
- Inability to cope with ordinary life issues that crop up
Cognitive Warnings Signs
- Repetitive unwanted negative thoughts
- Irrational fears
- Chronic worrying
- Inability to concentrate even on easy tasks
Behavioural Warnings Signs
- Change in eating habits
- Change in sleeping pattern
- Nail biting
- Increased use of drugs/ alcohol
- Telling lies
- Desire to be alone
If you are already quite mindful, then just reading the list of the warning signs would have already made you realise that you or a close friend/ relative may be susceptible to a specific mental breakdown due to high levels of stress that are not being effectively managed.
Step 2: Take Action
Talk to someone. Often the act of unburdening yourself of the negative thoughts has the effect that they lose their power over you. Hearing another person’s take on your problems also helps to put it in perspective. Spend time and be open with friends and family.
Mindfulness. The practice of taking stock of how you feel in a particular moment, identifying emotions and weighing their validity will help you identify stressors early. Write it down. One way to relieve anxiety is to write it down and express your thoughts and feelings. Another way is to practice gratitude, focus on that which is positive in your life.
Self-care. This means being really strict about a few things: taking breaks, getting enough sleep, taking care of your appearance and hygiene, eating healthily and consuming less alcohol, making time for regular exercise. Plus, belly-laugh as often as you can, listen to music, chew gum, play with your pets and learn to say NO.
Breathing. Learning stress-busting breathing techniques and meditation will also help you stay calm.
Get organized. Face your work head on and plan the way forward so that you feel less overwhelmed on a daily basis.
Sensory ergonomics. Ensure that your workspace is not toxic READ MORE. In other words, that your lighting, comfort, access to air and any other aspects are enhancing your mental well-being and not bringing you down. Understand what is important to YOU.
Engage a coach. An academic support coach has a deep understanding of what you are going through, will help you identify areas that need to take priority and will give you more perspective on what you should be doing and how you should be doing it.
The most important thing to remember is that we all live with stress, anxiety and depression to some degree. It’s not so much a mental health issue but a human condition.
*6 July 2014