Mental illness and how your pharmacist can help

July is Mental Illness Awareness Month and according to statistics released by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), as many as one in five South Africans will or do suffer from a mental illness. 

Mental illness refers to a wide range of disorders that affect your mood, thinking and behaviour. Examples include depression, anxiety disorders, intellectual disabilities, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, eating disorders and addictive behaviours.

What You Need to Know About Mental illnesses

Jackie Maimin, CEO of the Independent Community Pharmacy Association (ICPA) says that mental illness is widespread and pharmacists see clients confronting a range of different mental health issues: “For many people, external stressors alter brain chemistry leading to anxiety and depression. When we feel under pressure our bodies release stress hormones, called the “stress response”, which help us cope with the threat or danger. Stress can actually be positive, making us stay alert, motivated and focused on the task at hand. Usually, when the pressure subsides, the stress hormones reduce, and we start to feel calm again.

However, when we experience stress too often or for too long, or when the negative feelings overwhelm our ability to cope, then problems arise. Continuous activation of the“stress response” causes wear and tear on our bodies leading to both mental and physical illnesses. Stress comes in many forms such as moving home, family illness or death, divorce, losing a job, keeping up with grades, paying debts – the list of stressors is endless. However, even when things seem impossible, there is always help available.”

The ICPA provides some of the following warning signs and symptoms of mental illness that may indicate that you should speak to a medical or mental health professional:

In Adults, Young Adults and Adolescents:

  • Confused thinking
  • Prolonged depression (sadness or irritability)
  • Feelings of extreme highs and lows
  • Excessive fears, worries and anxieties
  • Social withdrawal
  • Dramatic changes in eating or sleeping habits
  • Strong feelings of anger
  • Strange thoughts (delusions)
  • Seeing or hearing things that aren’t there (hallucinations)
  • Growing inability to cope with daily problems and activities
  • Suicidal thoughts
  • Numerous unexplained physical ailments
  • Substance use

In Older Children and Pre-Adolescents:

  • Substance use
  • Inability to cope with problems and daily activities
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive complaints of physical ailments
  • Changes in ability to manage responsibilities – at home and/or at school
  • Defiance of authority, truancy, theft, and/or vandalism
  • Intense fear
  • Prolonged negative mood, often accompanied by poor appetite or thoughts of death
  • Frequent outbursts of anger

In Younger Children:

  • Changes in school performance
  • Poor grades despite strong efforts
  • Changes in sleeping and/or eating habits
  • Excessive worry or anxiety (i.e. refusing to go to bed or school)
  • Hyperactivity
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums

The fact is that a mental illness can happen to anyone at any age and mental illnesses deserve the same attention and care as physical illnesses,” says Maimin.  “Many mental illnesses are preventable and most are completely treatable. Due to the complexity of this group of disorders treatment varies from one person to another and patients may need to try different treatments before they find the one that works for them..”

“It is important to remember that suicidal thoughts, plans, and actions are a result of a chemical imbalance in the brain, not a character flaw or weakness. This chemical imbalance makes it difficult for someone to problem-solve and think out solutions to their intense emotional pain.”

How Pharmacists can help?

Maimin says that with such a high prevalence of mental illness in South Africa the community pharmacist plays a vital role in education, support and management of thedisorders.

“Pharmacists are often the healthcare professionals who have the most contact with a person suffering from a mental illness, and may be the first person a patient speaks to about their condition,” says Maimin.

“Pharmacists are able to detect and resolve medicine related problems by providing comprehensive counselling on the safe use of medicines. They can assist patients cope  with stress to help prevent stress-related mental disorders such as depression, with advice on healthy living and lifestyle modification .  Pharmacists can also refer patients on to appropriate healthcare practitioners when necessary.”

According to Maimin, the lack of adherence to medicines prescribed for mental health issues remains a big problem. “Treatment of mental illness often requires some form of medication, and the correct use of that medication is essential to restoring mental health and preventing relapse.”

“Your pharmacist is a medication expert who is trained in pharmaceutical care, which is basically getting the right medication to the right person at the right time for the right condition with a minimum of adverse effects. With the right health care management and support, patients experiencing a mental health disorder can boost their well-being. Community pharmacies play an important role in helping patients stay mentally healthy.”

The ICPA urges South Africans who are struggling with a stress-related condition or are suffering from a mental health disorder to visit their community pharmacy.  A confidential, friendly chat with your pharmacist may be all that is required to get you back onto the road to recovery.  “Don’t suffer in silence – rather reach out and ask your pharmacist for help and get the treatment needed to restore your health and sense of well-being,” concludes Maimin.

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