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People react in different ways when they hear that a family member is mentally ill. Some cannot believe it, others are ashamed or fear that people will reject them because they will think there is something wrong with them too.

But family members of a person with mental illness are encouraged to be open about it. It is nothing to be ashamed of. If you have mental illness in your family you should encourage friends and relatives to get to know more about the patient's condition. This will help them to understand and give support.

What is mental illness?

There are many different kinds of mental illness. In general it can be described as a condition that disturbs the moods, thoughts, memory and behaviour of a person.

There are also different causes and degrees of mental illness. Some conditions can be treated with counselling or medication. With the right treatment some mentally ill patients can lead normal lives or even recover completely. Others need long-term care at mental hospitals. In serious cases, patients can become violent and dangerous.

One of the most common mental disorders is called schizophrenia. This is when different functions of the brain do not work together. One of the signs of schizophrenia is hearing or seeing things that other people do not hear or see.


If a family member or friend shows signs of mental illness, he or she should go to a doctor or clinic. If necessary, the person will be referred to a doctor who specialises in mental illness or to a mental hospital for treatment. The following can be early signs of mental illness:

  • Mood changes or changes in behaviour. The person becomes quiet and depressed and is suspicious of everything. Sometimes he or she behaves strangely or becomes angry or violent for no reason.
  • Hearing voices and seeing things that do not exist.
  • Losing interest in personal care and cleanliness, work, studies, friends and family relationships.

How to cope

Having a family member with mental illness can be stressful. You can find different ways of coping, like starting support groups with people to help take care of the patient. You can also join or start a support group for parents of children with mental illness. Hearing how other people deal with problems can help you handle similar situations.

- Ndivhuwo Khangale

Mental Illness Awareness Month

July is Mental Illness Awareness Month. During this time, the Department of Health informs and educates people about mental illness. They do this by sending educational messages on mental illness to the public.

For more information on mental illness, call the Department of Health at 012 312-0480

Write to:
Vuk'uzenzele Health Advice
Private Bag X745
Pretoria, 0001

E-mail us on: vukuzenzele@gcis.gov.za

The Department of Health will advise you.