Clinical Head of Specialised Psychiatry at the King Dinuzulu Hospital Complex and co-founder of the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Mental Health Advocacy Group, Professor Suvira Ramlall’s book, Inpowerment: Building Mental and Emotional Resilience draws on her more than 30 years’ clinical experience as a psychiatrist to help “INpower” with better mental health resources, advice, tips, and exercises. The book stemmed from a request made in 2021 to create a mental health resource for UKZN staff and students to cope during crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic and the civil unrest in KwaZulu-Natal.
‘The book is aimed at all those who are interested in their mental wellbeing and overall health… It is based on scientific evidence but translated into a language and activities doable by all, requiring no resources other than the will to grow resilient,’ said Ramlall. ‘The critical gaps in our training and clinical services have been mental health promotion and mental and emotional literacy. Even within tertiary institutions, the central role that mental wellbeing plays in academic performance and institutional health is not recognised. It was a wonderful challenge to find creative ways to translate abstract and often misunderstood mental and emotional health concepts into practical activities that are within the capabilities of both students and staff…as well as the general public.
‘Mental health is everybody’s business. People do not realise the interconnectedness between what happens on their “inside” (minds, hearts and souls) and their “outer” lives (productivity, academic performance, physical health, success, relationships, and ultimately, the economy). Many social ills such as violence, crime and substance misuse are caused by underlying mental health issues that are not recognised or addressed. Note that mental health issues are not synonymous with mental illness. The absence of mental illness does not mean that you are necessarily mentally healthy and vice versa.’
Ramlall added: ‘Psychiatry is a much-misunderstood medical discipline; it requires a holistic bio-psycho-social-spiritual-cultural approach to people, health and illness, unlike the linear biomedical approach of other medical specialities. There is a huge shortage of mental health professionals in South Africa and globally; there will never be enough professionals to meet the mental health needs of communities. It is therefore imperative that individuals and communities invest in self-care and improve their mental and emotional literacy and resilience.’
Ramlall explained that psychiatry is concerned with mental illnesses or disorders. ‘In the clinical arena, it remains poorly understood by those within the medical fraternity and the general community. As long as people are uninformed about the recognition of and treatments available for mental disorders, we will continue to see delays in diagnosis and treatment. Stigma impacts negatively on help-seeking and creates additional challenges in integrating into society.
‘I have always been interested in the “inner world” of humans; becoming a doctor and then a psychiatrist were choices that were “made for me” in many serendipitous ways. My interest though, is more in mental wellbeing than mental illness.’
The book grew out of UKZN’s Developing Research Innovation, Localisation and Leadership in South Africa (DRILL) programme, which was the result of a competitive grant application to the Fogarty International Centre of the US National Institutes of Health (NIH) awarded to the co-Principal Investigator team in 2015. The project supported research training and induction programmes for early career academics and health professional staff members in the five scientific areas of Human Immunodeficiency Virus/Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome (HIV/AIDS), Mental Health, Health Professions’ Education, Health Research Ethics and Health Systems Research.
First launched at the Durban International Book Fair on 9 August, UKZN hosted a launch on 17 August to celebrate the culmination of the DRILL project. Several Fellows who benefited from the DRILL platform shared their experiences of the Personal Development and Success Intelligence workshops conducted by Ramlall over a six-year period. They highlighted the transformative impact of the workshops on both their professional trajectories and personal growth and wellbeing. Through the workshops, they came to expand their definition of what true success entails and learnt the importance of self-care.
DRILL’s Communication Principal Investigator, Professor Petra Brysiewicz is a full professor in UKZN’s Discipline of Nursing, School of Nursing and Public Health and an honorary full professor in the Division of Emergency Medicine in the Department of Surgery at the University of Cape Town. She commented that the success of the grant was due to so many researchers being part of the DRILL family. ‘Never in our wildest dreams did we imagine that it would be as successful as it was. Thank you to the DRILL Fellows, the Co-PIs and the College of Health Sciences for immense partnerships and support.’
Ramlall offered the following five tips for daily practice to maintain an active, healthy mind, details of which are included in her book:
• Exercise the body and mind daily
• Respect and prioritise your sleep needs: sleep is medicine
• Nourish your body, mind and soul/spirit
• Prioritise self-care: love, support and heal your physical, mental, emotional and spiritual “bodies”
• Take active steps to manage sources of distress in your life: chronic stress lies at the root of many medical and mental disorders.
Words and photograph: Lunga Memela