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Most mentally ill South Africans won’t be helped

Around a fifth of South Africans suffer from a mental disorder – but 75% don’t receive the care they need.

Of the 20% of South Africans who suffer from a mental illness, 75% do not receive the care they need. That’s according to Fatima Seedat from the South African Federation for Mental Health, an umbrella body representing 17 mental health societies in the country.

Seedat said this was due to a lack of accessible resources, stigma and misdiagnosis.

“The South African government is not doing enough to provide suitable resources for persons living with a mental illness despite the increasing prevalence of mental illness nationally. There are only 80 day-treatment public facilities available in the country for a population of over 50 million and half of these are run by non-governmental organisations,” she said.

According to statistics from the health department and World Health Organisation, one in four South Africans will suffer from a mental health condition in their lifetime, while 22 people commit suicide every day.

Allan Sweidan, chief executive officer of Akeso, a private group that runs six specialised psychiatric clinics around the country, says the state of the country’s mental healthcare painted “a grim picture”.

During the official launch of Akeso’s emergency response vehicle for those in psychological crisis this week in Gauteng, Sweidan said there was still a stigma attached to mental illness. This was in spite of the “excellent efforts of advocacy organisations to bring these conversations into the mainstream where they belong”.

“I think that what happens is that people try and hide mental illness a lot of time and do not discuss it often enough,” he said.

Funding challenge

Sweidan said the private sector was also facing challenges from funders who were spending less on mental health disorders.

“Because there is no direct correlation between mortality rate and mental illness, it’s not high up on the agenda of the funders and of the public health system,” he said.

Akeso has made its psychiatric response unit vehicles, which have been operational in Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal for the past two months, available for free to anyone suffering from a potentially life-threatening psychological emergency. 

Sandy Lewis, spokesperson for Akeso, said the response vehicles were manned by qualified paramedics.

“Patients can access immediate telephonic support and if in crisis the intervention vehicle will be dispatched,” she said.

Patients who do not have medical aid and who rely on the public health service will also be supported and taken to a relevant public hospital if they need to be admitted, she added. However, patients in need of emergency assistance can be stabilised at an Akeso clinic before being transported to a public hospital.

The paramedics, according to Sweidan, have completed intermediate life support courses in addition to specialised training on psychological disorders and patient management.

“I really didn’t understand the effect this intervention would have on people’s lives. When we started we thought we would get three calls in a month.  But in the last two months we’ve had about 300 across Gauteng and Pietermaritzburg. We didn’t understand the pent up demand,” said Sweidan.

Health department spokesperson Joe Maila declined to comment on the Akeso service, saying the department was unaware of it. “However, the issue of mental health is important to us. We have just finalised a five year plan on mental health which we will launch shortly,” he added.  

For help in psychological emergencies people can call 0861 HELP US (4357 87), 24 hours a day.

Phyllis Mbanje was a Bhekisisa fellow in 2014.