Mental health matters: why we need to keep talking about it

Damian McHugh, Executive Head: Marketing Momentum Health Solutions 

Approximately 1 in 5 adults in South Africa now suffer from a mental illness such as anxiety or depression. The last few years have taken their toll, and no one has been spared. Though there is a growing awareness and conversation around mental health issues, there is still a stigma associated with having a condition.

We need to break the stigma. Mental health issues have many sources, including genetic predispositions, but the root cause is stress. Financial worries, work, thinking about the future, personal relationships, family, and existing medical conditions are all major causes of stress for South Africans.

Insights from Momentum’s mental wellness programme found that financial worries top the list as the biggest cause of stress, affecting each age group as well as men and women equally. Half of all women said it is their main cause of stress, followed by 46 percent of men.

Age and gender play an important role in people’s stress levels and what they stress about. The incidence of mental health issues appears to be more prevalent among Gen Z in South Africa: the stressors of starting a career during a pandemic and lockdown, combined with an ever-faster pace of living and working, have impacted this generation significantly.

Thinking about the future is also a major cause of stress for them, compared to other generations. Nearly half – 49 percent – cite it as a major stressor compared to only 27 percent of people aged 55 to 64.

Women also tend to stress more than men. Family life, self-image and childhood experiences are areas that women worry about more than men. The only stressors males are more likely to cite than females are work (38 percent vs 27 percent) and misuse/overconsumption of legal stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol or smoking (19 percent vs 12 percent). This is likely because men in South Africa still largely suffer the expectations attached to being the ‘bread winner’ in the household.

Women are increasingly integrating both the homemaker and career role into their lives and, in most instances, the stress they feel is intertwined – which is why they worry about more.

Treating the root: how managing stress can mitigate physical illness

Men and women, young and old alike need to learn how to effectively understand and manage stress and individual triggers. Identifying and managing stress can help mitigate and alleviate other health conditions – making it critical to treat the root cause rather than the symptoms.

Identifying stress accurately can be tricky, though: stress is often not attributed as the underlying cause of physical conditions such as high blood pressure, stomach issues and ulcers, or dissociative seizures, among others.

There is a clear need for a deeper understanding of stress and its physical manifestations, for individuals and medical schemes so that they can not only pick up and identify early indicators, but also help people understand and manage their stress better.

Just as we adopted the need for physical check-ups in society, so too do we need to make mental check-ups common place. In this instance, wearables have shown they can play an important role by measuring indicators such as blood pressure and sleep patterns, and helping people take a more active part in managing their own health. Companies and medical schemes also need to play their part by creating environments and providing tools and support that promote positive mental wellbeing.

The role employers can, and should play, in helping employees’ mental health includes creating a supportive mental health policy and providing mental health tools and support, as well as fostering an environment that promotes resilience and a healthy work/life balance.

Healthcare providers need to help people understand, measure and address stress by providing tools and guidance around mental health. Tools can include measuring resilience and the capacity to deal with challenges through heart rate variability and other stress factors, as well as wearables and apps geared towards support and guidance, and dedicated Wellness Days. Through the revised Momentum Multiply offering, we at Momentum Health Solutions have implemented a number of these tools and initiatives, aiming to create and develop programmes that address total health issues.

For us it’s a process. We need to create awareness, provide the tools to help consumers measure their stress indicators, and provide ‘bite size’ steps to assist in prevention and recovery all aimed at driving an incremental gain in improvement.

The link between mental and physical health is undeniable – we need to continue to normalise talking about it and destigmatising mental health conditions. There is still a long way to go, but we are on the right track.