What is Mental Health? | Western Cape Government

What is Mental Health?

(Western Cape Government)
A concise and clear document on what mental health and mental illness means. An informal questionnaire on coping with stress and answers to frequently asked questions about mental health.
Mental health is not merely about the absence of mental illness, but rather the presence of mental health and wellbeing. Mental health is about how you feel about yourself, how you relate to others and how you deal with the opportunities, difficulties and challenges of everyday life.


Mental Health is about finding a balance between dealing with the difficulties in life and using the opportunities life presents for further development. Get to know your Strengths (work at growing these) and Vulnerabilities ( work at overcoming or getting support for these) and learn to recognize when you are not coping and at risk for unhealthy stress.


We may not feel mentally healthy or positive about life all the time. Generally, our own strengths or resilience, with support from others, can assist us to bounce back from a crisis or stressful situation during which we are not feeling well balanced in our lives. Some stress can be challenging and enjoyable (a new job, different responsibilities). We need to guard against allowing our stress levels to reach the point where we are longer coping with daily lives


Test your level of stress. Read through the questions below. For each time you answer "yes", put a tick in the box.

Do you feel tired all the time?
Do you find it difficult to sleep
Do you suffer from headaches, ulcers or indigestion?
Do you find it difficult to concentrate?
Do you struggle to relax?
Have you lost interest in sex?
Have you lost interest in hobbies and other activities which you enjoyed?
Have you lost your appetite or are you eating more than usual?
Are you always late for work?
Do you avoid your colleagues?
Do you feel angry, irritable or "down in the dumps"?
Do you bring your work problems home with you at night and over weekends?
Are you making rash impulsive decisions?
Do you find it difficult to make decisions?

If you recognise yourself in the Stress Test, you may be suffering from job stress. Most of us feel this way for brief periods at some point in our lives. While there are no easy and quick fixes to some of the problems we have, it is best to take steps to reduce stress at work to regain or protect your mental health. To take charge of the situation you can:

  • Reset your priorities, where possible: Focus on the important things.
  • Be realistic: Divide projects into manageable tasks, Recognise what you can/cant do.
  • Be honest with your colleagues/boss: Suggest practical improvements to the situation.
  • Take care of your physical, mental and personal life: Don't neglect friends and family.
  • Build in time to relax: Learn to say "no" Lose the guilt about relaxation time.
  • Get support: Identify people with whom you can share problem and work out solutions.


An important part of maintaining your mental health at home and work is to recognise when you have or may be at risk to develop mental health problems. Information, and if necessary, assessment and advice about treatment may be obtained from your local community health centre, GP or occupational health nurse or clinic. Private practitioners such as psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and clinical social workers may also be of assistance.


Mental health problems span a wide range of conditions, from milder conditions that could benefit from easily attainable changes in lifestyle and stress levels to more severe conditions which may require hospitalisation and ongoing regular treatment to enable you to manage every day life at home and at work. Some conditions are more likely to appear at specific periods, for example post-natal depression in new mothers, mental deterioration (Dementia) in the elderly. Others may appear at any phase of life.


Below is a list of some signs and symptoms in 3 categories within the wide range of possible mental health problems we may experience, to help you do a spot mental health problem check! Where these symptoms or other regular patterns of relating or behaving interfere with your performance at work or study and disrupt your and your loved one's family and social life, it is possible that you have a mental health problem that requires attention.

Depression Anxiety Psychosis
Do you ..... ...Constantly feel sad or irritable or both (snappy or tearful)? ...Lack interest or pleasure in activites you used to enjoy? ...Feel helpless, hopeless guilty and worthless? ... have poor concentration and memory, ?have difficulty making decisions? ...think about death or suicide? Feel tired and lack energy? Have weight gain or loss (no appetite or eating compulsively)? Have sleep problems (too much or too little), not feel rested? ...have agitated or slowed activity levels(time passes too quickly)? Do you ...experience feelings of panic, tension or excessive worry? ...have fears of dying or losing control? ...fear not being able to escape from places, and avoid leaving familiar places? ...have feelings of unreality? ...fear and avoid social situations? ...become light-headed, breathless or dizzy? ... have stomach pains, headaches muscle tension or feelings of numbness ortingling?... Are there times when ......you hear voices, see images, feel or smell things which others do not seem to see? ...your head feels empty of thought, your thoughts seem vague and unrelated and difficult to organise? ...you have strong beliefs which others cant understand, for example, others want to harm you, or you have special powers and knowledge ...you feel others can 'read your thoughts or you can read theirs. ...your emotional tone becomes 'flat'' or odd to others ...your ability to manage daily personal hygiene and tasks deteriorates.


People may avoid dealing with their mental health problem or emotional difficulties by "self medicating": They may do this by excessive use of over the counter or prescribed medication, alcohol or other drugs.

While this may provide temporary relief from symptoms, it can also lead to problems of addiction without addressing the underlying problem. You may need help to stop if you have already started this practice. People with mental health problems may not seek seeking the help they need, because of beliefs that mental illness is a sign of personal weakness, laziness, social unacceptability or "wishful thinking".

The facts are clear: Mental illness, like physical illnesses, can affect anyone. Mental health problems are painful and can hurt as much as a physical injury, and it is best to obtain help early to promote the fullest possible recovery. The sooner you obtain help, the sooner you may feel better. The first step to obtaining help is to accept that getting help is the right thing to do!

Help or advice on where to go for your particular mental health problems may be obtained from your:

  • school or religious counsellor
  • local doctor
  • local community health centre or mobile clinic
  • workers clinic or health sister
  • social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and other health professionals.

The mental directory of services can be consulted for other centers offering assistance


You may also wish to call a local Hotline to discuss this problem.

Anxiety and Depression Helpline0800 567 567
Aidsline0800 01 2322
Child Line0800 05 5555
Life Line021 461 1111/4
Alcoholics Anonymous021 510 2288
Narcotics Anonymous088 1300 327
HEAL (Halt Elder Abuse Line)0800 003 081


SA Federation for Mental Health
Private Bag X3053
Tel: 011 781 1852/ 7263

Cape Mental Health Society
Ivy Street
Tel: 021 447 9040

Western Cape Forum for Intellectual Disability
Tel: 021 510 4686
Web: www.wcfid.co.za

Mental Health Information Centre
P.O. Box 19063 Department of Psychiatry
Tygerberg University of Stellenbosch
7505 Tygerberg
Tel: 021 938 9229

The Child Care Information Centre (CCIC)
Maternal and Child Health Information and Resource Centre (MCHIRC)
Tel: 021 689 1519

The Child Health Unit
RXH Rondebosch Mowbray Children's' Centre
46 Sawkins Road
Rondebosch 7700
Tel: 021 685 4103

The content on this page was last updated on 15 March 2014