Stop discrimination and help support fellow citizens

Wednesday, 17 March 2021 With just a few days to go, many South Africans are looking forward to celebrating the significance of Human Rights Day on Sunday, 21 March. However, for those suffering with mental health issues this important public holiday is a stark reminder that our society is yet to fully recognise their needs and the tremendous hardships faced by them.

According to Dr Sizwe Mazibuko, a psychiatrist practising at Akeso Arcadia, mental healthcare users continue to face stigmatisation, not only in South Africa but globally. These individuals are medically ill in the same way those with physical conditions are, yet they receive less support, fewer treatment options and often, a lack of respect from their communities.

“Unfortunately, there is a dearth of resources and this is particularly problematic for those with mental health conditions. The length of in-hospital stay for those who do receive care is therefore often insufficient, added to which there are limitations in terms of healthcare cover. In the public sector lengthy waiting lists are a challenge and treatment is seldom optimal, due to the prohibitively high financial cost of drug therapy,” he adds.

Lack of education a major factor

Peta-Lyn Foot, program manager at Akeso Randburg – Crescent Clinic, points out that at a societal level, individuals suffering from mental illness are still widely viewed with fear or contempt. “Many people seem to be under the impression that these individuals should be in control of their illness and often take the stance that they should ‘pull themselves together’. This would be like telling a person with cancer or chronic heart disease that they need to just get on with it,” she asserts.

Dr Mazibuko agrees, noting that there is a general misunderstanding around psychiatry, with many individuals believing the discipline relates to patients with psychosis most of the time. The doctor explains that the opposite is in fact true. “The majority of mental healthcare users are perfectly functional people who need some help to stay on course, just as a diabetic may need insulin to manage their health,” he says.

Cultural and economic challenges

“A lack of education around mental conditions is an enormously debilitating factor. Added to which, cultural dynamics in South Africa can lead to serious mistreatment of those with cognitive disability; sometimes even in cases of elderly people with dementia, for example, who in the later years of their lives need help and care, and instead are met with fear and superstition and are therefore persecuted in the community.

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