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SA is stressed out and suicidal

The country has a high suicide rate, psychiatric illnesses are on the rise and stress has become normalised.

Every day, an estimated 21 South Africans commit suicide and, according to experts, stress could be a significant contributing factor.

According to studies done by University of KwaZulu-Natal researcher Lourens Schlebusch, an estimated 7 582 South Africans die by their own hand every year and 20 times that number attempt but fail to take their own lives. 

While reliable statistics and research as to why the rate is so high are scarce, Marthé Viljoen from the federation says new data suggests South Africans have unusually high stress levels.

A recent study, conducted by international research company Bloomberg, ranked South Africa as the second “most stressed out” nation in the world, following Nigeria. El Salvador was ranked third. Another study, conducted last year by Ipsos Global and Reuters, showed that up to 53% of South Africa’s workforce does not take their allotted annual leave.

“High stress levels have been linked to mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and can also lead to substance abuse. In severe cases, these problems can lead to a person becoming suicidal,” says Viljoen.

Psychiatric illness on the rise

South Africa already has high rates of substance abuse with, for example, alcohol alone being the third-highest contributor to death and disability among citizens, according to a 2014 study published in the South African Medical Journal.

Dominique Stott from the Professional Provident Society, an insurance company for graduate professionals, says that if insurance claims are anything to go by, psychiatric illnesses in South Africa are on the rise.

“Rates of major mental illnesses such as schizophrenia seem to be stable but cases of depression and anxiety are certainly escalating,” she says.

The most recent nationwide prevalence study for mental health was conducted from 2002 to 2004 and it found that South Africans have a 30% chance of suffering from a mental disorder in their lifetime, with depression being the most common.

Stott says she is “not surprised” that the country has such a high suicide rate. “We can see from the data that South Africans work too hard and don’t take enough time off.”

But a recent survey conducted by mental health awareness organisation the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag) showed that, while a quarter of the more than 1 000 respondents have been diagnosed with depression, they were likely to remain at work while experiencing symptoms.

Normalising stress

Sadag board member and psychiatrist Frans Korb says that employees who are depressed at work are “five times less productive” than employees who are not depressed.

Stott says the “mounting claims” for depressive and stress-related conditions show that many South Africans “can’t cope”.

“A lot of people don’t even recognise they have a problem as stress becomes so normalised.”

She says people suffering from stress-related depression and anxiety should seek professional help before “stress turns into despair”.

“People should see a counsellor or a psychologist to discuss their problems. Antidepressants can also help if a professional thinks it is necessary,” says Stott.

For people with access to medical aid, she says most schemes pay for 21 days of in-hospital psychiatric treatment – regardless of the condition.

According to Stott, a consultation with a private psychologist costs about R1 000 for the first appointment and about R500 for each follow-up session.

Stressed or suicidal? For free help contact the South African Depression and Anxiety Group on: 0800 12 13 14 (24 hour helpline). For a suicidal emergency call 0800 567 567.

  • Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that according to Bloomberg research, South Africa was the most “most stressed out” nation, followed by Nigeria. Nigeria was in fact placed first in the survey, followed by South Africa.
  • Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that South Africa ranks eighth internationally for its high suicide rate, according to the South African Federation for Mental Health. It has since been pointed out by Africa Check that there is no data to support this claim

Amy Green was a health reporter at Bhekisisa from 2013 until 2016.