Mental health of South Africans continues to worsen during Covid-19 pandemic
In all her years at the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), Cassey Chambers has never experienced a busier period at work than the last few months.
Call volumes have more than doubled during the lockdown, with anxious and depressed South Africans seeking help desperately.
The promise of the new year hasn’t eased worries and fears: the non-profit organisation has received a flurry of calls this year from those battling with mental health problems.
A large number of these calls have been from people contemplating suicide because of the extended period of loneliness and isolation during the lockdown.
“While there is no research or evidence that suicide rates have increased during the lockdown – we know that suicide is a major issue throughout the year – what we do know is that due to Covid-19, we get more calls from people who feel lonely, experiencing grief or loss, anxious and are depressed,” says Chambers, Sadag’s operations director.
“People assume that because it is a new year, everyone should be happy and positive – whereas so many people may be dreading the year as we have gone back to level 3, many are working from home while caring for kids or struggling with finances or health and still feel very down, stressed and desperate.
“It has also been an incredibly difficult start to the year for so many people – people’s lives have changed drastically, some have lost their job, some have gone into debt or are worried about money, others have experienced grief and loss, dealt with anxiety and burnout, felt stressed and uncertain for so long – that there may be many people who feel depressed, anxious or even suicidal.”
A survey conducted by Sadag recently showed that two-thirds of South Africans said their mental health worsened during lockdown, and some experienced suicidal thoughts.
During the first few weeks of the lockdown, Sadag surveyed 1 214 South Africans about their state of mental health. About 12% of them said they were feeling suicidal.
Of the calls that Sadag receives, the majority (about 85%) come from women.
Even before lockdown, about 23 South Africans died by suicide and 230 serious attempts were made daily.
Chambers says the pandemic has put a severe strain on the mental health of South Africans.
“It has been a difficult year for so many people, and Sadag has been busier than ever before. We receive up to 1 600 calls a day,” Chambers says.
While Chambers cannot reveal details of the suicidal calls, she says factors such as grief, depression, financial strain, job loss and illness during the pandemic have contributed.
Chambers says there are steps people can take to improve their mental health during the pandemic.
“For many people living with a mental health issue, the current situation may be worsening or intensifying symptoms so it is important to take extra care with more support and self care steps to ensure your mental wellness,” says Chambers.
“If you have a compromised immune system or a medical condition you’re worried about, speak to your doctor for more specific guidance on your treatment.
“If you are in therapy, speak to your therapist about alternative or online sessions. If you have a scheduled appointment with a psychologist or psychiatrist, do not cancel due to fear of exposure. Call the practice and ask what their new protocol or alternative plans are because many are offering online sessions.”
“Avoid searching online, media sourcing or having conversations throughout the day around the virus because this will cause increased anxiety that may lead to panic.
“Filter what you are reading, watching and exposing yourself to, especially since it can be very negative and scary. Try to set specific times to check for updates – but rather spend more time that could be adding value to your wellness such as doing things that you enjoy, doing more relaxation and stress relieving activities.”
She also advises not using smoking, alcohol or other drugs to deal with emotions.
“If you feel overwhelmed, talk to your mental health professional, counsellor, family or friend. Have a plan, where to go and how to seek help for physical and mental health needs.”
Clinical psychologist, Cassandra Govender, agrees that the pandemic has put a severe strain on the mental health of South Africans.
“The pandemic brings many social, relational and economic consequences which have an impact on people’s wellbeing,” says Govender.
“The biggest has been on citizens’ stress levels with worry heightened for a variety of reasons such as safety/health, financial security, working or schooling remotely, inability to see and connect with loved ones or attend funerals and observe ’normal grieving rituals’ as well as changes in freedom of movement.
“All these experiences can result in people feeling more sad, irritable, angry or hopeless. This may impact their productivity, relationships, sleep, appetite, energy and feeling of being well and safe.
“Over time, this can lead to the development of mental illness such as depression, generalised anxiety or trauma-related symptoms and disorders. It may also trigger individuals with existing illness.”
Govender says there are many reasons why people contemplate suicide, including distress, anxiety, depression, trauma, financial challenges and loss of income, all of which seem to have heightened during the pandemic.
“The commonality among all these reasons is that the individual experiences a high level of distress and that there is no solution to their problem. They feel suicide is their only way out. It is this perception of feeling out of choices and trapped or profoundly hurt in certain circumstances which can trigger these thoughts and behaviours.”
“These thoughts can occur within a context of mental illness but not only people with a diagnosable disorder, can think about or attempt suicide.”
Govender believes it is imperative that South Africans address mental health issues head on.
“As a whole, we are still reluctant to speak and think about our own mental health as South Africans.”
“While conversations have occurred more frequently, people are still more likely to recognise it in someone else than face it in themselves. This makes being aware and getting help difficult.”
“It still scares people to venture into this realm but at some point in our lives we will all experience a decline in our mental health, especially during a pandemic.
“This is not something we should feel ashamed about. It is important we are aware of our experiences in our minds, bodies and relationships or they can lead to even worse difficulties.
“How we experience and manifest distress is unique and it is important to know yourself well enough to know when things feel unusual and you need more support.
“If anything is clear, it’s that this pandemic will be with us for a while and therefore waiting for the storm to pass is not the best approach. Instead we should focus on managing through the storm so that when it is over, we come through it with our minds still intact.”