Stress and mental health

Posted on 12 October 2016

Although stress affects us all in different ways and to varying degrees, it doesn’t discriminate. No matter your age, class, race or gender, prolonged stress can lead to serious mental health problems.

The term ‘mental breakdown’ is not a technical or medical one, but is sometimes used with terms like ‘burnout’ to describe a situation in which a person is no longer able to cope at work, at home or in social situations due to stress and mental health disorders.

Dr Karen Vukovic, a psychiatrist at Mediclinic Sandton, says mental health illnesses are on the rise, and as many as one in three South Africans suffer from mental health problems. This is especially prevalent among teens, where according to local statistics, 9.5% of teenagers report that they believe suicide is the only answer to life’s stresses. The reasons may vary, but can likely be attributed to increased socio-economic and political instability and the resultant pressure to perform.

It’s a myth that depression is a disease for the weak-minded or that depressed people just need to ‘pull themselves together’. Dr Vukovic adds, ‘Fortunately the old-fashioned stigmas surrounding mental illness seem to be falling away, and it is increasingly more acceptable to acknowledge depression and seek help.’

Warning signs to watch for

In yourself:

• Decreased or increased appetite
• Insomnia
• Lack of energy and motivation
• Loss of libido
• Avoiding social situations
• Not wanting to do things you previously enjoyed
• Amenorrhoea (skipped or ceased periods in women and young girls not on contraceptive medication)

In others:

• Changes in behaviour
• Helplessness and hopelessness
• Emotional withdrawal, such as not engaging with friends or going out
• Changes in eating patterns
• Changes in sleeping patterns
• A preoccupation with death or dying
• Moodiness, irritability, sadness or feeling blue

How to get support for mental health

If you or a loved one is experiencing these symptoms, you need to see a doctor who can assess the situation, prescribe medication if necessary and put you in touch with a psychologist or psychiatrist. The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) is a great resource for guidance and support. Visit the website at

Lifestyle management tips to reduce the effects of mental health disorders:

1. Create structure
No matter how awful you feel, it’s important to keep to regular appointments, routines, engagements and sleep/wake times.

2. Limit stressors
Take time off work or restructure your work schedule into tasks that are more easily completed, require less concentration and can be accomplished in shorter periods of time.

3. Practice mindfulness
Mindfulness is a focus on living in the present. It is calmly accepting your feelings, thoughts and bodily sensations. Meditation can help you to be more mindful and when you are mindful, you’re taking responsibility for what you do, why you’re doing it and recognising that you have choices.

4. Exercise
This is as essential for mental health as it is for physical health. In general, the average person needs regular daily cardiovascular, weight-bearing exercise.

5. Eat right and avoid substance abuse
It’s important to eat a balanced diet and to avoid drinking alcohol or taking drugs. Often someone with mental health problems will try to self-medicate with alcohol, but this just makes depression and anxiety worse.

Published in Healthy Life

In the interest of our patients, in accordance with SA law and our commitment to expertise, Mediclinic cannot subscribe to the practice of online diagnosis. Please consult a medical professional for specific medical advice. If you have any major concerns, please see your doctor for an assessment. If you have any cause for concern, your GP will be able to direct you to the appropriate specialists.

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