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Although researchers in the past decade have made astounding advances in the field of mental health, especially with regards to the treatment of mental illness, a large proportion of people suffering from various mental illnesses continue to suffer in silence. Out of sheer lack of awareness that there is a diagnosis, never mind a treatment, for the problems they endure, many never seek the appropriate help. Others, for fear of being labelled 'crazy' by family, friends, work colleagues or even the community at large, also never come forward.

There continues to be a stigma attached to mental illness in this country, and it affects those who suffer the illness, their families and even those who treat the mentally ill. A partnership, an alliance of advocates, is needed to eliminate the stigma and improve the current mental health system. To achieve healing and health, patients, families, and professionals must all work together.

Examples throughout the world have shown that powerful alliances created by determined patients and caregivers have been effective in agitating and educating for better mental health and in requests to government for better funding.

The Depression and Anxiety Support Group, founded in September 1995, is the largest privately funded, illness specific, patient advocacy support group in South Africa, with a membership of over five thousand consisting of sufferers, family members and a variety of mental health professionals. This group has shown over the last five years how critical partnership is in the struggle to improve access to care and to erase the stigma that attends mental illness.

Through a variety of different patient, doctor and public education programmes, the Depression and Anxiety Support Group has become a force for change, with a lot to teach all people about the strengths and assets of people who have recovered from mental illness. Zane Wilson, a previous sufferer of panic disorder for twelve years and founder and chairman of the group, is a walking example of how determination and partnership can achieve extraordinary change.

As well as providing a source of information and support for sufferers and their families, the group and others like it have also been a source of education for psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health professionals. Many have realized that much of their work is about interaction, and that interaction is a two-way street. Awareness has increased and many have seen the benefits of listening to the families and caregivers of the patients, the people who care for mentally ill people all day, every day, without relief, respite, or recognition. A combination of input from both family and professionals can ultimately lead to a more holistic and successful treatment plan.

By learning from advocacy groups like the Depression and Anxiety Support Group, many professionals have been inspired to become better advocates for their patients. Through working with support groups they can help themselves. According to Dr Paul J. Fink: "When a patient is discharged, he or she should be referred to an appropriate mental health support in much the same way as we have always referred patients with alcoholism or drug abuse problems to appropriate self-help groups. There is no code or rule that prevents us from increasing our own knowledge or awareness and - when appropriate - incorporating patient advocates into the overall treatment plan. Advocacy remains a strong and powerful force during even these most difficult times for our health care system. Advocacy is an asset. We would be wise to support it, enhance it in ourselves, and nurture it in others."

* Excerpts taken from Fink at Large - Dr Paul J. Fink