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The Star. July 30 2012

Ennerdale, South of Johannesburg. Bronwyn Still(48) with the depression medication in front of her, she has battled depression since when she was 18 years old and attempted suicide several times.

Botho Molosankwe

When she was 18, in her first year at a teachers’ college, Bronwyn Still slit her wrists.

She was overweight and lonely, always felt sad and had no self- confidence.

However, since she did not know what it was nor how to address it, she over-ate. After a while, death seemed like a viable option.

When she was found with bleeding wrists, her mother – a nurse – cleaned her wounds, bandaged them and told her to perk up and carry on with her life because she was only 18 and had a lot to live for.

That was one of many suicide attempts that Bronwyn would make before she was eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder and depression. Throughout tumultuous episodes in her life, Bronwyn managed to hold on to her teaching job, do an honours degree, get married twice, raise two children and run marathons.

120712. Ennerdale, South of Johannesburg. Bronwyn Still(48) she has battled depression since when she was 18 years old and attempted suicide several times. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

INLSA

She is one of the millions of South Africans who have a mental illness. According to the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), one in five SA has a mental health problem.

July is Mental Health Month and according to Dessy Tzoneva of Sadag, mental illnesses influence the psychological state of a person and affects how a person thinks, feels and behaves.

Depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder are just some of the ailments.

In SA, Tzoneva said, receiving adequate medical care was a major challenge to people with mental health problems because of financial constraints. While there is a shortage of psychiatrists, psychiatric nurses, psychologists and social workers throughout the world, the situation was particularly bad in SA.

But it is not only the shortage of resources; there is also the stigma attached to having a mental illness and the discrimination against patients and their families.

“A South African public survey showed that most people considered mental illnesses to be related to either stress or a lack of willpower.

IN CONTROL: Bronwyn Still, 48, with her depression medication in front of her. She has battled depression for years and attempted suicide several times. Picture: Dumisani Sibeko

INLSA

“People are afraid to let others know that they have been diagnosed with or are being treated for such a condition. Some are even hesitant to go for help because their neighbours will find out”.

“(As a result) many people do suffer in silence and believe they are weak and just need to toughen up – this is completely incorrect. Mental illness is a medical illness like diabetes or asthma and treatment is necessary, often including medication and psychotherapy.”

Tzenova said children also had mental health problems and it was important for parents to seek help quickly if they were worried about their children’s emotions, behaviours and thoughts.

Bronwyn’s story

Since she was a teenager, Bronwyn Still, 48, knew that something was wrong with her but she did not know what it was exactly.

She was always sad and a loner. To make herself feel better or be happy she turned to comfort eating. This did not help, because she became overweight. The feeling of unhappiness remained.

As she got worse, she thought that death was her only option.

So, when she returned from college one day, she locked her bedroom. Her windows had burglar bars and she knew no one would be able to come in. She took a blade and slit one wrist.

After slitting the other wrist, she passed out.

When her family later returned, they were surprised to find the house empty and her room locked. They could not get in through the window, so they got someone to break the door. They found her, drenched in blood and unconscious.

Bronwyn and her sister Heather, believe that her mother, who was a nurse, knew at the time that Bronwyn could be suffering from a mental illness.

But she did not want to admit this because of the stigma, and rather chose to be in denial about the situation.

Besides the overeating, Bronwyn also started abusing alcohol to numb her pain.

More suicide attempts followed. After each one she would just be taken to a hospital. But there would be no counselling to find the root of her problem.

It was only six years ago that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. She has been put on different kinds of medications since.

She attempted suicide two years later by taking a whole bottle of tranquillisers and ended up in the intensive care unit. A few months ago she was also diagnosed with depression and spent three weeks at a psychiatric clinic.

After many years, she now has a new medication regimen that she hopes will be able to help her.

Today she said, she feels much better and but is sad about the toll her illness took on her family over the years.

“My children worry about me a lot and I always have to report to them where I am. I would not wish depression on my worst enemy; it is one of the worst things ever. Who wants to feel depressed all the time and have nightmares?” she asked.

She advised mental health patients not to stop their medication without the consent of their doctor.