The UN’s World Mental Health Day, celebrated this year on the 10th of October, highlights the importance of having ‘helping hands’ available at community level when it comes to mental health issues. The 2016 theme ‘psychological first aid’ particularly puts both South Africa’s prevalence of mental illness and our inadequacies when it comes to the delivery of mental health care services sharply in the spotlight.
While historically South Africa has had more facilities available for institutional mental health care than other African countries, access to remedial mental health services for out- and in-patients still remains severely limited. This is against the backdrop of having amongst the highest rates of crime, violence, domestic abuse and sex abuse in the world; all major factors, along with the traumas of HIV/Aids, the devastations of substance abuse and debilitating deprivations of poverty, that lead to our high prevalence of mental illness.
A State of Well-being
The World Health Organisation defines mental health as ‘a state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community.’ Whatever the divides between different viewpoints of what is a mental illness and what is a mental disorder, all related conditions can prevent sufferers from being in such a state of mental well-being if they receive no treatment and support.
In the light of South Africa’s social and economic issues, this is a definition of mental health that seems far out of reach for us as a country. Despite the policy progressions afforded by The Mental Health Care Act No. 17 of 2002, little has changed in terms of allocating funding and implementing projects and programmes for mental health research, facilities, medications, professional education and public awareness. The result is that the millions of South Africans requiring consistent, quality mental health care services still do not access them, adding a significant cost to the country’s ‘burden of disease’.
Making Psychological First Aid a Priority
The tragedy is that with the right treatment and care, mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar, post-traumatic stress syndrome, substance abuse and others, can be effectively managed and supported so that more and more South Africans could in fact, attain and maintain a state of mental well-being.
“The key is that mental health needs to become a priority for the country,” says Dr Ashley Smyth, Academic Dean of SACAP (the South African College of Applied Psychology). “That means mental well-being needs to have an urgent agenda that permeates from the psychological first aid required in our communities throughout every aspect of our society – homes, schools, workplaces – and of course, through every level of government where there needs to be commitment to building, implementing and sustaining robust, multi-faceted strategies to support the country’s mental well-being.”
Unfortunately, another barrier to mental well-being includes various stigmatizations of mental illness and disorder. From the view of a psychosis as a ‘demonic possession’ to the attitude that ‘depression is just an excuse’, there’s a lack of knowledge, understanding and tolerance across South Africa’s different cultures. “This is simply counter-productive,” Dr Smyth points out, “Isolating sufferers effectively prevents them from accessing treatments and the help they need. It robs them of their opportunities to become productive members of our society. It’s as if we are forgetting that as a society, we are only as strong as our weakest link. It’s the responsibility of each of us to reach out a helping hand, and to promote healing and strength.”
It is in this area, that Dr Smyth believes the World Mental Health Day’s theme of ‘psychological first aid’ can play a major role. He says, “SACAP is focused on playing a critical role in addressing trauma and dislocation in our society, and in building a more socially cohesive and empowered South Africa. An example is our Registered Counsellors, who undertake significant supervised fieldwork as part of their studies for their degree. Deployed in communities where access to mental health services is very limited, they act as the ‘mental health paramedics’. Through their work in internships that range from corporates to non-government organisations, they fight prejudices; and show that whether you are a youth from a township battling with substance addiction, a business manager suffering from panic attacks after a road accident, or a child devastated by rape, your traumas are relevant and you have the potential to heal.”
Are you fascinated by psychological conditions and the complex workings of the human mind? The South African College of Applied Psychology offers a range of qualifications in the field of psychology, including a fully accredited BPsych Degree. To make the switch to psychology, click here.