Stress: An Equal Opportunity Killer

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This week’s comment from President Zuma claiming that “stress is a white man’s disease” is not only ignorant but dangerous. This is also not the first time that the president has used such a narrative. Rhetoric like Zuma’s assertion that “in the Zulu nation, stress does not exist” fuels the stigma associated with Mental Health issues; the low rate of treatment-seeking behaviour; increases distress caused by stress-related illnesses, and destabilises community education and empowerment programmes.

“Stress is most certainly not a racially exclusive disease”, says the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. SADAG, which was instrumental in bringing the recent Life Esidimeni tragedy to light, says that the organisation is troubled by the lack of concern or prioritisation for Mental Health issues. It was because of this kind of neglect for psychiatric patients and a failure to see Mental Health issues as real medical illnesses in need of treatment that over 100 vulnerable patients died at the hands of the Gauteng Department of Health.

Unfortunately, anyone, regardless of race, religion, culture or socio-economic group can suffer from stress. Stress is our body’s natural physiological reaction to an external threat or danger and may be caused by factors such as unpaid bills, an argument with a loved one, unemployment or work difficulties, car accidents and traffic, crime and political instability. Stress in life is unavoidable and is accumulative – it builds up over time. “We cannot always remove existing stress before new stress is piled on”, says SADAG’s Director, Cassey Chambers. “And South Africans’ bad stress levels are skyrocketing across the board.” While stress in small doses is a good thing when life’s demands exceed your ability to cope it can lead to a deterioration of Mental Health and chronic stress can result in physical ailments such as tension headaches, back pain, body aches and irregular sleep, anxiety, depression, substance abuse, even suicide.

Stress can spur peak performance but too much of it strains your heart, robs you of memory and mental clarity, and raises your risk of chronic disease. Unhealthy coping skills include things such as alcohol or drug abuse, reckless driving, promiscuity, self-injury, isolation, excessive risk-taking, abuse and violence. “When our own leaders tell us that stress does not exist, how much more shame, guilt, or poor self-worth do we feel? How likely are we to seek help – from anyone?” asks SADAG’s chairperson, Nkini Phasha.

Stress and depression affect people of all ages, from all walks of life and negatively impacts a sufferer’s ability to carry out everyday tasks. Stress has consequences for families, friends, workplaces, communities, and health-care systems. Stress can lead to depression which costs the economy billions a year. According to the WHO, depression will be the second highest cause of morbidity in the world by 2020. More and more people are suffering stress, burn-out and depression. Research reveals that an average of 18 days are taken off by employees suffering from depression and if an employee has depression but is at work, they are 5 times less productive than an employee who was absent due to depression. “The economic value lost to business due to mental disorders is about 2.2 percent of South Africa’s yearly gross domestic product.

“We still have major shortages in facilities and staff trained to treat mental disorders, particularly in rural areas and have a gross lack of facilities for the poor. Untreated mental disorders cost our economy more than R30 billion every year”, says Phasha. Research shows that more workers are absent from work because of stress, anxiety, depression, trauma and other mental illnesses than because of physical illness or injury. With South Africa’s current state of affairs, the cost of not treating illnesses like stress is far higher than simply dealing with them. But to do that, to get facilities and infrastructure in place, we need serious attitude adjustments from our leaders.

Since its creation in 1994, a key component of SADAG’s work has been outreach, education and empowerment. Zuma’s comments have the potential power to fuel myths and misconceptions about mental health issues like stress and depression, and “sets us back as a country as we try to reach out to all communities in all regions to help them recognise the warnings signs and consequences of stress, and the importance of seeking help”, says Phasha. According to research, only about a quarter of people in South Africa seek or receive treatment for a mental health issue. President Zuma should know that there are 23 completed suicides every day in this country and a further 460 attempted suicides every 24 hours by people across ages, races, and cultures. Only through educating people about stress and depression can we reduce the stigma that surrounds mental health issues, and lead to an increase in help-seeking behaviours.

“… If I listened to my critics I would have that disease white people call stress but I don’t have it because I know better,” Zuma has been quoted as saying. Another myth about stress is that it is a choice and you can stop feeling stressed or depressed if you want to. “Stress is not something you can turn on and off”, says Phasha. People vary in how long they can tolerate chronic stress, or whether they believe in stress, but the body is affected regardless. “The fact that there is no specific word for stress in our African languages does not mean that it does not exist, it does not mean that the body’s natural physiological reaction does not occur. We are all human after all. Stress sharply increases the risk of insomnia, chronic disease and early death – whether you are black or white.” 

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) runs a telephonic counselling centre for anyone needing advice or referral to a mental health expert or support group. Call them on 0800 21 22 23. They’re open 7 days a week from 8am to 8pm. You can visit their website at www.sadag.org. If, at any point, you have thoughts or feelings that truly disturb you or you feel out of control or feel like you may hurt yourself, don’t wait. Call your doctor or SADAG immediately.

The more we understand about depression and suicide, the better able we all are to help our communities. The abuse of society’s most vulnerable – the mentally ill and poor – by government structures and leaders in place to protect all citizens, must cease.

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