Panic attack in public place. Woman having panic disorder in city. Psychology, solitude, fear or mental health problems concept. Depressed sad person surrounded by people walking in busy street.

As the world celebrates Mental Health Awareness Month, the focus is on “everyday” factors that affect the health of the population.

A pharmaceutical firm concerned about SA’s high use of antidepressant medication has launched an education campaign to shed light on the ordinary, often unsuspecting things that could have an impact on the public’s mental well-being.

Abdurahman Kenny, Central Nervous System Portfolio Manager at Pharma Dynamics says the growing incidence of depression and anxiety worldwide implies that there are other factors too that make modern-day society more vulnerable to mental illness.  

“Research shows that spending too much time indoors, being stuck in traffic, heavy social media use, lack of movement and even slouching could all be triggers,” he says.

According to research done by Harvard’s Medical School, staying cooped up indoors is not only bad for physical health, but mental health too. These days most people spend the majority of our days inside denying our bodies of much-needed vitamin D, which may provide some protection against depression.

Kenny says exposure to sunlight increases the brain’s production of serotonin – a hormone associated with an elevated mood. “By just spending 10 to 15 minutes outside with our arms and legs exposed to the sun (without sunscreen), is enough for our bodies to produce the required amount of vitamin D.

“Our indoor lifestyle has led to more than a billion people across the glove being Vitamin D deficient – even in the sunnier parts of the world, such as Australia, more than a third are deficient. Evidence shows that a lack of vitamin D increases the likelihood of depression by up to 14% and suicide by 50%, so be sure to make safe sun exposure – either in the morning or late afternoons a habit,” he remarks.

Life satisfaction and happiness also takes a dip among those who have to suffer through long commutes to work and back. A report by the UK’s National Office of Statistics showed that people who commute for longer than half an hour to work each way (regardless of the mode of transport) have greater levels of stress and anxiety.

Kenny says the average South African spends almost three hours a day in traffic.  He suggests speaking to employers about working flexi-hours or working from home if the job allows it.

Heavy social media use – equal to two or more hours a day – has also been associated with poor mental health. “Researchers from Ottawa Public Health found that those who spend more than two hours a day on social networking sites are more likely to suffer from psychological distress and suicidal thoughts than those who spend less time online.

Based on the latest Global Digital Yearbook published by We Are Social and Hootsuite, South Africans already spend almost three hours a day trawling Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms – about half an hour more than the average global user – which can take a toll on our mental well-being.  

“While social media isn’t all bad, it’s important to set boundaries, as too much time on networking sites can have damaging consequences. Commit to not checking social media at mealtimes and when spending time with family and friends. Also schedule regular breaks from social media. Studies have shown that week-long breaks from Facebook can lower stress levels and lead to higher life satisfaction.