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Are We Making a Big Enough Deal about Mental Illness?

In 2018 it has become evident that more and more people secretly battle with mental illness – the misunderstood silent killer that almost 20% of South Africans live with.

Illustration by Nosipho Nxele on Behance

Trigger Warning: Suicide

In 2018 it has become evident that more and more people secretly battle with mental illness – the misunderstood silent killer that almost 20% of South Africans live with, according to SADAG (South African Depression and Anxiety Group). In low-income households, the stats have reached epidemic levels, often due to a lack of awareness and access to treatment.

According to the World Health Organization, mental illness is defined as the following:

  • There are many different mental disorders, with different presentations. They are generally characterised by a combination of abnormal thoughts, perceptions, emotions, behaviour and relationships with others.
  • Mental disorders include: depression, bipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia and other psychoses, dementia, intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders, including autism.
  • There are effective strategies for preventing mental disorders, which include depression.
  • There are effective treatments for mental disorders and ways to alleviate the suffering caused by them.
  • Access to health care and social services capable of providing treatment and social support is key.

"Mental health is not given the priority it deserves in South Africa and there is very little research into mental health and service conditions"


-Zane Wilson, Director of SADAG.

The truth is that most South Africans live below the poverty line, and due to a lack of access to healthcare or support groups, mental illness is often linked to substance abuse, violence and suicide in rural communities. Those who lack access to medical care are often at a higher risk. For many South Africans, especially within the black community, the stigma around mental illness makes it difficult to identify or treat. And, say the experts, this is costing people their lives. As no diagnosis is given, often the mentally ill person (particularly those who are children or elderly) is misunderstood and cast away from their family.  “In rural areas, there is one bed for every 342 patients needing mental health care, and no child, or adolescent dedicated beds,” comments prominent South African psychiatrist, Stewart Lund.

Furthermore, the Department of Health has found that in extreme cases, if there isn’t a separate psychiatric inpatient unit,  mentally ill patients have been admitted to general wards. This not only increases the stigma, but also decreases the quality of care for these patients.

Following the recent suicides of prominent South African figures, mental health is once more in the social media spotlight. The salient question being:

Why would someone, who has everything, want to end their life?


Mental illness doesn’t have a “look” – it can affect a wide array of people, regardless of race, culture or gender. Evidence shows that victims of trauma and members of the LGBTQI community appear to be at a higher risk. Environment and stress can also trigger symptoms, identified with those who live with depression. Research also shows that it is common for successful people to feel alienated by the illness, making it difficult to speak out, and, in extreme cases, even resort to taking their own lives.

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Ideally, legislation needs to be toughened up to accommodate the rising statistics, ensuring that trained professionals are sent to rural communities and schools. Despite the progress in suicide prevention campaigns, there is still seems to be a lack of frameworks that allow for step-by-step identification and treatment measures in South Africa.

What can we do better?

We can talk. We can check up on our loved ones. We can create spaces for young and old, where there is freedom to openly discuss mental health issues. Corporate companies and educational institutions ought to become more involved, in order to understand how work environments may trigger feelings of isolation, stress and anxiety.

We are more than just statistics – the more we speak about these issues and hold leaders accountable for making treatment measures available to the public and widening awareness, the better we can address the stigma.


Illustration by Nosipho Nxele

The most important thing to remember is that you are not alone. If you, or a loved one, suffer from mental illness, contact the following numbers for more information and assistance.

Suicide Crisis Line 0800 567 567

SADAG Mental Health Line 011 234 4837

Akeso Psychiatric Response Unit 24 Hour 0861 435 787

Dr Reddy's Help Line 0800 21 22 23

Pharmadynamics Police &Trauma Line 0800 20 50 26

Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline 0800 70 80 90

Destiny Helpline for Youth & Students 0800 41 42 43

ADHD Helpline 0800 55 44 33

Department of Social Development Substance Abuse Line 24hr helpline 0800 12 13 14 

 SMS 32312

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