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In accordance with World Mental Health Day and National Anxiety Disorders Day, free anxiety screening programmes were conducted at 25 venues nation-wide on Saturday, 10 October. The day was extremely successful with more than 4000 people coming forward at the various venues. Screenings throughout South Africa were made possible thanks to the very kind sponsorship afforded by Donmed, Lundbeck, Parke-Med, Roche, SmithKline Beecham and Solvay.

Anxiety disorders - such as Panic Disorder, Social Phobia, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Generalised Anxiety Disorder - affect more than a quarter of the population each year. These disorders are often difficult to diagnose as they mimic a number of other illnesses. Many anxiety patients suffer for years without a correct diagnosis.

The South African National Anxiety Awareness Day was first conceptualised in 1997 with the aim of educating the public about the various anxiety disorders, their symptoms and the effective treatment that is available. Increasing the awareness about anxiety also results in reducing the stigma attached to mental illness. Furthermore, sufferers are made aware of community resources in their areas.

The free screening conducted on Anxiety Awareness Day consisted of an educational presentation, an anonymous written self-test and the opportunity to meet and talk with a supportive mental health professional and obtain referrals if necessary.

This year, for the first time, screening programmes were also arranged in rural and disadvantaged settings. Popular centres in the areas of Letaba, North West Province, Siyabuswa and Soweto were targeted. The concept was well received and supported by the various communities.

In the relatively isolated community of Letaba, the volunteers managed to approach over 70 people throughout the day. Thembeni Mhlongo, clinical psychologist, answered a vast number of queries. “I was still surprised at the relative lack of knowledge about anxiety disorders. A large number of sufferers that I spoke to were not receiving proper treatment.” Thembeni used the opportunity to refer sufferers to the local Letaba Hospital, which provides effective treatment for anxiety disorders.

Soweto was one of the most successful venues this year with over 145 screening tests conducted. Therry Nhlapo, Outreach Co-ordinator for the Depression and Anxiety Support Group, was thrilled with the large turnout and positive response from the public. “Buwa Community Radio gave us tremendous support and announced the free screening throughout the day,” she explained. “We increased awareness in the community by handing out a lot of informative literature. I feel the day was extremely beneficial.” Dr. Thebe Madigoe, psychiatrist and member of The Depression and Anxiety Support Group’s Advisory Board, was also on site to share his expert input with Soweto sufferers.

Siyabuswa proved to be another successful venue. The regional co-ordinator for the area, Peter Matlhaela, estimated that over 100 screening tests were conducted. Peter was particularly impressed with the support he was given by his group members on the day. He believes that the day was a “big success”.

Melamo Shuping tackled the challenging task of organising the Anxiety Awareness Day at the Mega City Mall in the North West Province. This was the first time that this kind of awareness campaign has been carried out in Mmabatho. Radio Motswedi was particularly helpful with advertising the event, and as a result, the community responded very positively. Melamo believes that it would be very beneficial to repeat this screening campaign next year again.

Some of the other communities targeted on Anxiety Awareness Day included Bloemfontein, Cape Town, Durban, East London, George, Newcastle, Pietermaritzburg, Port Elizabeth, Pretoria, Randburg, Rustenburg and Welkom. The busiest venues appeared to be those in Newcastle, Pietermaritzburg, Rustenburg and Pretoria.

In Newcastle, volunteers distributed over 1000 anxiety pamphlets to interested shoppers at the Pick ‘n Pay Centre. Originally, the volunteers were ‘anxious’ about how their campaign would be received in their small town. However, their fears were soon put to rest. Patty Headley, regional co-ordinator for the area, said that “the response was marvellous….the relief we saw on people’s faces when they realised they were not alone was well worth the time and effort put into the day.” Patty further noted that “generally, the public are not well informed about anxiety disorders or of the fact that help and support is available. The screening tests proved very informative and we were able to refer many people for professional help.”

The organisers for Pietermaritzburg received numerous phone calls in connection with the event, and they used the opportunity to provide referrals and information to a number of sufferers. “I think events like this are very important in helping to destigmatise anxiety disorders,” said Pietermaritzburg regional co-ordinator, Jean Green.

In Rustenburg, regional co-ordinator, Tertia van der Bank, found that the public were particularly interested in the anxiety disorders video that was shown. Interestingly enough, 50% more men than women approached their stand for advice regarding symptoms of possible anxiety.

The success of the Anxiety Awareness Day was largely due to the competence and professionalism of the mental health professionals and volunteers that were involved. The regional co-ordinators for each region were instrumental in the running of the project and, in many cases, were assisted by anxiety support group members. Our thanks to the many psychiatrists, psychologists, mental health nurses and workers that gave up their time to create this awareness in their communities.