The first media conference hosted by the Depression and Anxiety Support Group, held in Sandton last week, was a successful beginning to what will be a closer, more communicative relationship between the group and the media.
The Depression and Anxiety Support Group, now in its fifth year, is Africa’s largest non-profit, privately funded consumer advocacy group for a number of mood disorders. The group aims to raise awareness about mental illness, to educate the general public as well as general practitioners about these mental disorders and the various treatment options that are available for them, and to fight the stigma attached to mental illness.
A recent survey showed that the majority of people get most of their mental health information from the media. This highlights the important role that the media has to play in providing accurate information about mental disorders to the public and how they could help to eliminate some of the massive misperceptions about mental illness that are currently held by a large proportion of the general public.
According to Johannesburg psychiatrist, Professor Michael Berk, Chairman of the Support Group’s Advisory Board, the two main misperceptions are, firstly, the number of people that suffer from mental illness, and secondly, the incorrect connotations that surround mental illness and stigmatise its sufferers. It seems to be a common belief that mental illness is rare and that people suffering from it are ‘crazy’, ‘weak’, and sometimes even dangerous.
Mental illness is common, to the extent that the World Health Organisation predicts that by the year 2020, depression will be the disease that causes the most disability worldwide. Already, depression is more widespread than coronary heart disease, AIDS and cancer combined.
Zane Wilson, Founder and Chairperson of the Support Group, explained that in a recent American survey, it was found that people with mental disorders are most often thought of as violent, scary, dangerous, sad and lonely, and that that there was no other group that was portrayed by the media so incorrectly. Due to major advances in the field of mental health, recovery rates after treatment have vastly improved, to the extent that about 80% of people who receive adequate treatment will make a full recovery. Sadly, due to the stigma attached to mental illness and the lack of information, approximately two-thirds of people suffering from various mental disorders will never seek treatment.
By educating the media and allowing them easy access to various psychiatrists and psychologists, the Depression and Anxiety Support Group hopes to provide the public with more accurate information and better coverage of mental illness. Working together, the Support Group and the media can become a powerful force in the fight against mental illness and the stigmatisation of its sufferers.
This first conference was well attended by a number of journalists representing a variety of newspaper and magazine publications, television programmes and certain radio stations. Professor Mike Berk spoke on Depression and Suicide, while Dr Dora Wynchank, also on the Support Group’s Advisory Board, spoke on Schizophrenia. Both explained that these disorders are diseases of the body, and that until the public is educated, the stigma these disorders carry will continue, and sufferers will continue to go untreated. The journalists were also exposed to a number of actual sufferers or recovered sufferers who were willing to speak about their experiences with depression, suicide and schizophrenia.
So far the feedback from journalists has been very positive, and there is strong support for the continuation of this programme. The next forum is expected to be held in about three month’s time.