Generic medicine developer, Pharma Dynamics has launched the #Letstalkmentalhealth social media campaign to combat the stigma associated with mental illness.

According to Mental Health Portfolio Manager for Pharma Dynamics, Shouqat Mugjenker, contrary to popular belief, new research shows that social media engagement may have positive effects on mental health.

“Studies have found that social media (if used primarily to maintain friendships or stay connected socially) is not associated with negative outcomes such as loneliness or isolation and can in fact help those suffering from a serious mental disorder to feel more connected. Many mental health sufferers may find personal, face-to-face interaction difficult, which makes social media an easier and more accessible channel to use for social engagement,” said Mugjenker.

Mugjenker added that while spending too much time online can have negative consequences, social media can however play a role in opening the conversation around taboo subjects, such as mental health.

“Culturally, as a nation, we are just not wired to talk about mental health, however the ‘facelessness’ and sometimes ‘namelessness’ of social media makes it an ideal platform for people to be honest and truthful about how they feel without fear of judgement or ridicule. Our #Letstalkmentalhealth social media campaign this month aims to dispel the misconceptions that many South Africans have about people living with mental illness, as these factors often prevent sufferers from getting help,” said Mugjenker.

“Mental illness is a lot more common than people think. Many associate it with severe forms, such as schizophrenia or bipolar, but the more quieter conditions, such as depression and anxiety are much more pervasive and often end up in tragedy,” he continued Mugjenker.

According to the South African Stress and Health (SASH) study, which is the most recent available research on psychiatric disorders in SA, an estimated 16.5% of South African adults currently live with a mental health disorder, while about 30% will suffer from a mental disorder at some point in their lives. However, the data was collected several years ago in 2009, therefore figures are likely to be much higher, given the rise in mental disorders globally.

Apart from offering sufferers support, researchers are also turning to social media to help them diagnose depression. Last year, scientists from the Universities of Vermont and Harvard developed a program that reviewed Instagram data from 166 participants of whom 71 were clinically depressed. They looked for patterns in the more than 43,950 posts and observed differences in features of social media posts between depressed and non-depressed participants.

Photos posted by depression-sufferers tended to be darker with bluer and greyer tones; received more comments from the study cohort; contained more faces and when filters were used, a black and white filter was favoured. Depression-sufferers generally also posted more often. Once researchers put their findings into an algorithm, the computer program was able to correctly identify about 70% of depressed subjects.

Mugjenker noted that even though depression is complex and often coincide with other mental health conditions or chronic pain, utilising social media to help identify depression could be a step in the right direction, especially in South Africa where there is a shortage of mental health professionals.

“We all experience sadness at some point in our lives, but if these feelings overwhelm us week after week, it shouldn’t be overlooked. Common signs of depression include increased fatigue, sleeping problems, constantly feeling anxious or tense, feelings of danger and panic, trouble focusing, losing interest in life, indulging in risky behaviour, substance abuse, uncontrollable emotions, changes in appetite and mood, among others,” said Mugjenker.

Mugjenker added that Pharma Dynamics will utilise its Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram and Twitter communities to address issues related to depression and anxiety that millions struggle with every day and hope that by inviting people to openly talk about mental illness, those who need help will feel comfortable enough to seek care.

Its #Letstalkmentalhealth social media campaign extends the organisation’s existing online efforts, which links people to tools and resources via www.letstalkmh.co.za. The website provides users with expert advice on how to identify and cope with mental illness and offers them a safe, anonymous, peer-to-peer experience where they can post about a range of mental health-related concerns, such as dealing with school or work pressure, loneliness, general anxiety and/or depression.

According to Mugjenker the objectives of the social media leg of the Let’s Talk campaign aims to break down the barriers that exist around mental health by educating both the public and sufferers about these conditions; knowing what symptoms to look out for in order for sufferers to seek help early on, while those close to them can provide them with the support and encouragement they need; and increasing positive social connectivity to help sufferers feel accepted.

“Our campaign challenges all South Africans to learn more about mental health. Those who take the pledge are encouraged to take action through conversation and to see people struggling with mental illness for who they really are instead of their illness. The more people become aware of mental health issues, the deeper their understanding and the more they will want to help and become involved,” concluded Mugjenker.

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