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“All of a sudden, I felt a tremendous wave of fear for no reason at all. My heart was pounding, my chest hurt and it was getting harder to breathe. I thought I was going to die!”, Thandi told her doctor.

If you’ve never experienced these frightening and bewildering symptoms, you may be suffering from an anxiety disorder. Unfortunately it often takes sufferers like Thandi many years to go to their doctors to ask for help, and even then, medical practitioners aren’t always experienced in treating these disorders.

A certain amount of anxiety is completely normal and everyone experiences it - it has even been described as life saving. But, when anxiety is felt for no reason and starts to affect a person’s ability to function at home and at work, then a problem exists.

Anxiety disorders are all characterised by some form of anxiety, and many include avoiding certain situations. This causes problems at home, in social situations and at work. The disorders include:

Panic Disorder: recurrent and unexpected panic attacks, where the patient also worries about future attacks, or losing control. It is often accompanied by a fear of being in a busy, public place or agoraphobia.

Phobias: persistent and unrealistic fears of specific objects or situations, for example michophobia - which is the fear of germs, or social phobia, which is the fear of appearing in public and doing something wrong, causing embarrassment or humiliation.

Generalised Anxiety Disorder: constant low level anxiety about a number of aspects of a patient’s life.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: recurring and persistent thoughts and impulses, such as frequent checking as to whether kitchen appliances have been switched off.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder: this is when someone keeps reliving a traumatic event, leading to emotional withdrawal, outbursts and sleep disturbances.

People suffering from anxiety disorders often have to endure their condition being misdiagnosed by GPs and misunderstood by friends and families. This is particularly common in black communities. In fact, some people refuse to believe that blacks suffer from these conditions, although in actuality, the incidence of the disorders are similar to those among whites.

Unfortunately this had led to sufferers trying to hide their symptoms. Anxiety disorders sufferers often don’t understand their condition, and are left feeling isolated.

Growing awareness of the extent of anxiety and depressive disorders has been helped by the hard work of the South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group.

The Johannesburg based group is a non-profit, privately funded support group which helps with the early and correct diagnosis of anxiety and depressive disorders; and as well as working to increase awareness among the public and medical community and to decrease the stigma attached to the disorders. The Support Group has shown many sufferers that their condition is treatable.

The initial meeting held by the group attracted 40 people. Today it has over 10 000 members and 75 branches countrywide.

There are no figures available to show how common anxiety disorders are in South Africa. However, figures in the United States shows that 1 in 73 people suffer from panic disorder and up to 1 in 10 will have Social Phobia at some time during their lives. Experts agree that the situation should be similar in South Africa.

The Depression and Anxiety Support Group has dedicated itself to aiding, counseling and educating individuals and their families who suffer from anxieties, fears and phobias. It also aims to integrate medication and therapy with education and social support.

The Group has gone from strength to strength since its inception in 1995. It has an Advisory Board made up of prominent psychiatrists, psychologists and general practitioners, led by Professor Michael Berk, Professor of Psychiatry at Wits Medical School.

The Depression and Anxiety Support Group offers a countrywide telephone counseling service from their offices in Johannesburg. Callers to the call-share number can get free counseling, and if necessary, a referral to a professional who can provide further medical treatment.

Counselors receive specialised training, which enables them to handle the many calls they receive. Callers vary from those suffering from a panic attack; asking for a referral; needing advice on medication or simply needing someone understanding to talk to. Counselors generally need to reassure and encourage callers and often make referrals to one of the professionals listed with the group.

The Group has established a countrywide database of psychiatrists, psychologists, doctors and clinics to assist sufferers throughout the country.

The Group is actively involved in continuing education for medical practitioners and assisting with the education of those undergoing training. Up to date information is fed through to Psychology students at third year and honours level, as well as medical students. These students benefit from first hand accounts of the illness and the latest treatments.

Seminars on different medications used for anxiety and depressive disorders are often held in collaboration with the major pharmaceutical companies. The Group also assists with locating members or patients for clinical trials.

The Group has also targeted sufferers in black communities. A qualified black counselor, Therry Nhlapo, has established 35 support groups in rural and disadvantaged communities. The process is gathering momentum as the sufferers recognise their condition, and try to seek treatment.

Publicity campaigns have formed a vital part of the process and media serving the various ethnic groups in South Africa have joined the process by publicising symptoms and the fact that help is available.

The Group’s representatives have attended many international events, such as the World Mental Health Patients Advocacy Day in Venice, to gain access to the very latest international trends and treatment techniques.

The Group aims to continue spreading the word on anxiety and depressive disorders. It regularly forms partnerships with pharmaceutical companies and clinics to take the message to people from all walks of life. In this way the Group believes more sufferers will be empowered to be correctly diagnosed and get the help and support they need.

An example of many of the volunteers who give of their time at the countrywide branches of the Depression and Anxiety Support Group is Themba Thsabalala. Themba, a former sufferer, has co-ordinated the establishment of the Sharpeville regional branch, and is assisted by Dr. Matshediso Kaeyane.

Themba says it has been very satisfying to help others to seek help. “I suffered for many years and didn’t know anything about anxiety and depressive disorders. Now we’re helping others to learn about the disease and get treated,” he says.

Themba’s goals for the Sharpeville branch mirror those of the group as a whole: to get sufferers countrywide correctly diagnosed; to give them the support and treatment they need, and to enable sufferers to lead more normal, happy and productive lives.