Are we more stressed, depressed and sleep-deprived than ever before, or do we just think we are? Lynette Botha investigates.

In my group of eight close girlfriends, one has OCD, two have had periods of depression and almost all of them have regular bouts of insomnia. The thing they all have in common, though, is that they have selfdiagnosed these afflictions. A few decades ago, depression, anxiety and insomnia were conditions ‘other’ people were diagnosed with. They were not desirable maladies, nor something you discussed freely – and they were definitely not bandied around as a badge of honour.

Yet today, we see people openly share on Facebook that they’re depressed, tweet about their third night in a row of insomnia and share countless posts on anxiety and panic attacks. While it’s a good sign that those afflicted by these conditions don’t feel stigmatised and are comfortable talking about their issues, many throw around these labels with wild abandon. Self-diagnosis has allowed everyone to identify these conditions for themselves, which makes it appear that we are more ill than ever before – but are we?

According to the World Health Organisation, one in 10 people globally – and one in three South Africans – will experience mental health problems at some point in their life. The growth of mental health issues in recent years is attributed to the pressures of modern day life – constant stress, overexertion and overstimulation all contribute. Mental health problems include advanced insomnia, depression, OCD (where compulsive behaviour prevents you from living your life normally), anxiety and panic attacks – and women are twice as likely as men to suff er from many of these. In their book Promoting Public Mental Health and Well-Being (R815, Jessica Kingsley Publishers) authors Jean Brown, Alyson Learmonth and Catherine Mackereth quote a 2007 study by the Mental Health Foundation in the UK that says 29% of women (in comparison with 17% of men) are likely to have been treated for a mental health problem in their lives. The reasons are unclear, but are thought to be due to both social and biological factors.

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Women are also twice as likely to experience anxiety as men; and of people with phobias or OCD, about 60% are female. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to suffer from substance abuse. But why? According to clinical psychologist professor Daniel Freeman, author of The Stressed Sex (R287, Oxford City Press), ‘Women tend to suffer more from what we call “internal” problems like depression or sleep problems. They take out problems on themselves, as it were, where men have externalising problems, where they take things out on their environment, such as alcohol and anger problems.’ Daniel further says that women may suff er mental illnesses at higher rates than men because of the stressful roles they play in society, as they often juggle lower-paying jobs along with family responsibilities.

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Women are more likely than men to seek medical help and, similarly, to self-diagnose their problems, which can be dangerous. While accepting you may have a problem is a step in the right direction, self-diagnosis can lead to misdiagnosis, which can be even more harmful. A Psychology Today article by Dr Srini Pillay says, ‘One of the greatest dangers of self-diagnosis in psychological syndromes is that you may miss a medical disease that masquerades as a psychiatric syndrome. If you have a panic disorder, you may miss the diagnosis of hyperthyroidism or an irregular heartbeat. Even more serious is the fact that some brain tumours may be the cause of changes in personality, psychosis or even depression.’ Like my group of friends, women may sometimes simply reach for the wine bottle, laugh it off and attempt to self-medicate. But prolonging diagnosing a mental problem is extremely dangerous. Not to mention the crutch that alcohol (and other substances) can become. ‘People try to avoid anxiety and go to great lengths to escape it, which often creates its own anxiety,’ says Johannesburg-based clinical psychologist Dr Colinde Linda.

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According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), a recent World Mental Health survey showed that, compared with 14 other countries, South Africa had the second-highest rate of substance abuse disorders and sixth-highest for anxiety disorders, both of which sometimes go hand in hand. Sadag founder Zane Wilson suffered with anxiety for 10 years before being diagnosed with panic disorder. ‘While anxiety and stress are part of life, we can empower ourselves to cope better,’ she says. In 20 years, Sadag has grown into the most influential mental health NGO in Africa. It has a 15-line counselling call centre, website, outreach programmes and a newsletter that reaches more than 20 000 people, showing just how much help South Africans need – and highlighting the rate at which mental health disorders are growing in the country. ‘We receive up to 400 calls per day,’ Zane says. ‘Social support is vital to managing stress and anxiety. Talking with others can do a world of good.’ Even if you’re just feeling overwhelmed, instead of self-medicating, talking through how you are feeling may be the best place to start. If you have any notion that you may be suffering from a mental condition, seek help.

As different mental illnesses can have common characteristics and symptoms, it can be challenging to tell the conditions apart. A mental illness is not something that can be checked with a blood test, but rather needs to be assessed by an experienced psychiatrist or clinical psychologist, over a period of time. Mental health problems are not to be overlooked or minimised – if you are seriously concerned about your health, it’s imperative to seek out medical advice rather than to self-diagnose and attempt to heal yourself or, worse, leave it untreated.

Images via Rex Features.