Home Health The pressing need to address mental health stigma in South Africa

The pressing need to address mental health stigma in South Africa

by Tania Griffin

A growing body of evidence suggests that the incidence rate of mental health disorders, such as depression and anxiety, is on the rise in South Africa. Of particular concern is the fact that only a small group of those suffering with these issues seek treatment.

Stigmatisation and misconceptions around mental health often prevent individuals from seeking help – many, as a result, suffer in silence. Improving social awareness and promoting educational drives can go a long way toward tackling this major public health concern. 

This is the opinion of Dr Thabo Mogotlane, a specialist psychiatrist at Mediclinic Legae, who explains that mental illness is simply a disease of the brain. “It therefore needs to be viewed in the same light as conditions affecting other major organs like the heart or lungs.

“The brain is as much a part of the human anatomy as any other organ and, sometimes, medical intervention is a necessary part of treatment. We need to equate mental health with physical health and to normalise getting the appropriate treatment, just as we would treat any other illness.”

Dr Mogotlane is the resident psychiatrist at Mediclinic Legae in Mabopane, Pretoria. The facility houses its own specialist Mental Health Services unit that assists members of the surrounding community. For Dr Mogotlane and his team, providing these services to low-income populations is of particular importance, given the pressing need for greater access to mental health treatment within outlying communities. 

Mental health: the facts and figures

In comparison to the rest of the world, South Africa sees relatively higher volumes of people suffering from depression, with 5% of the population being affected – 1.2% higher than the average global rate, according to the World Health Organization. Medical aid schemes have identified a notable increase in members accessing mental health services, with approximately 54 000 annual admissions to mental health facilities. These schemes also reported a higher spend on mental health, with a proportionally large number of claims relating to the treatment of anxiety and depression.

The upsurge in mental health disorders represents not only a significant social ill, but also has a far-reaching economic impact.

For Dewald de Lange, general manager: Mental Health Services for Mediclinic Southern Africa, these figures are indicative of a state of mental health decline – an issue of national importance. “The pandemic years brought mental health issues into stark focus, particularly in workplaces. Unfortunately, there is still much work to be done to end the stigmatisation of mental health issues and educate the population on how medical intervention can make a meaningful difference.

“For individuals suffering from conditions such as anxiety and depression, the first step is to move past the fear of judgment and shame and gain access to resources that can support them in their mental health journeys. There are many private and public resources available – tapping into them relies on the individual’s ability to reach out and ask for help.”

Mental health support and resources

There is currently a large network of private psychiatrists, psychologists and facilities that can provide individuals with assistance. For people who have medical aid, mental health treatment is covered as a prescribed minimum benefit on most plans. Psychiatrists sometimes have fairly long waiting lists, but a general practitioner has the expertise needed to help anyone make a start in the right direction. 

As De Lange says: “It’s important for both men and women to have equal access to mental health treatment. The unfortunate reality is that even with greater awareness around these issues, many men still avoid seeking help for fear of ridicule. In this regard, educational programmes that address stigma across every level of society play a pivotal role in countering misinformation.”

Mediclinic currently has six dedicated mental health facilities and a number of mental health wards within its acute care facilities, with a total of just over 400 beds. These facilities are staffed by multidisciplinary teams who include psychiatrists, psychologists, occupational therapists, specialist pharmacists and nursing care team members who deliver structured interventions to support patient mental well-being. 

Mediclinic’s two larger standalone facilities – Mediclinic Denmar Mental Health Services and Mediclinic Crescent Mental Health Services – offer a variety of more advanced therapies including electroconvulsive therapy, transcranial magnetic stimulation, ketamine treatment and pharmacogenomic interventions in conjunction with Mediclinic Precise, the group’s genetics testing division. 

Dr Mogotlane encourages South Africans to “embrace the power of self-awareness and take a proactive stance on mental health. Remember that seeking help is an act of courage – and together, we can illuminate the path to healing and resilience.”

You may also like

Leave a Comment