South Africa: Healthy Body, Yes. Healthy Mind?

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Promoting a healthy mind, as opposed to waiting for people to become unwell, is the way to prevent the scourge of mental illness that is still stigmatised today.

"There is a lot of talk as to how to improve physical health, going to the gym and cutting sugar in your diet. But there isn't so much to do on how to promote good mental health," says Jacqui Winship, a clinical psychologist and psychotherapist.

Winship, who has more than 25 years of experience in clinical psychology, wants to encourage conversations about mental health, which are rare. "People talk about mental health when they actually mean mental illness. People don't really talk much about what mental health really means. They focus on the illness side of it: depression, anxiety and stress. They don't talk about what makes good mental health," Winship says. She suggests focusing on the prevention of mental illness, rather than waiting for people to become unwell before they seek help.

To help encourage mental health, Winship and her colleague Gillian Straker wrote The Talking Cure. The book looks at understanding a well-rounded mind and the relationship between a psychologist and a patient or client.

It introduces fictional and real-life stories of people taking care of their mental health. The book came into existence, Winship explains, partly because psychology students wanted to get a picture of what it looks like to have a client sitting in a therapist's office.

With a variety of framed book covers mounted on the wall behind her at Pan Macmillian office in Melrose Estate, Johannesburg, Winship lays down the essential elements that constitute a sound and happy mind, including the capacity to have meaningful and strong connections with others. "[We need to feel we] have a sense of agency, that we are able to make choices about our lives, that we are not simply a cog in a wheel," she explains.

Meaning and purpose - through either work, relationships or hobbies - are indispensable tools in acquiring good mental health. "For some people, it might be through faith and religion. It doesn't really matter where you find your meaning, but it is important that people have a sense of meaning."

Winship specifically mentions the stigma around therapy, which makes people suffering from mental illness "feel that there is something odd or abnormal about them". This creates a sense of shame and prevents people from potentially finding help. In the book, Winship and Straker highlight the point that everybody has their quirks, flaws and difficulties.

Social media

Winship says that social media contributes to poor mental health. The pressures that come with these accounts affect various age groups, not only the young, as the platforms are so prevalent.

The content people put on social media is carefully selected and curated, says Winship. "It spreads the idea that other people out there got it together. They got these perfect lives. So there has to be something wrong with me, my life and relationships, something to be ashamed of." People care more about how they look to other people than their internal reflexive processes. This pressure makes many feel they have to live according to some established, social standard.

"I see how many young girls post bikini selfies on Facebook, and they get these lovely comments," Winship adds. "Though much focus is on how good they look. And you think about the girls on social media who don't have the perfect bikini body. And how does that make them feel about themselves, if they are looking at that as an ideal being presented to them?"

She acknowledges that social media can be used as a positive tool for change to help destigmatise mental illness. She suggests there should be more social media influencers who deliver authentic messages and encourage people to accept themselves and their flaws.

"The most powerful thing often is when people who are seen as famous or influential are able to share the fact that [they have imperfections]," she says.

Not everybody has the financial resources to get professional counselling. Winship suggests talking to trusted friends or a confidant. "We process stuff through talking about it, through hearing ourselves talk about it, through having it reflected back to us by another person."

But she stresses the importance of therapy if it is financially possible. "One thing therapy gives you is that hour a week. You have that specific time, where you focus on taking about yourself, and reflecting on what is going on ... Being able to talk about it, especially to a therapist if you can, is a way to help you live comfortably with yourself - not to be cured, because there is no such a thing."

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