The most refreshing thing to happen this week, for me, was to hear newly crowned Miss SA, Shudufhadzo Musida, take a stand on the prioritisation of mental health. Now that she’s on a platform where people will actually sit up and listen when she says something, we can only cross fingers that this beauty queen will make meaningful change in the sphere of mental health.
So far South Africa is doing very badly as far as providing care for psychiatric patients go. According to the publication Medical Brief, fewer than 1 in 10 people living with a mental health condition receive the care they need. There are even quite a few reference points to show the neglect that psychiatric patients are receiving, especially in government hospitals.
In July a 16-year-old Joburg boy with autism, presented with symptoms of mild schizophrenia, according to his family. He was admitted to Charlotte Maxeke Academic Hospital in Johannesburg for assessment. As this was almost at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, hospital visits had been suspended, making contact visits impossible. The teen’s mother says she suffered great separation anxiety as her son had never been away from her. She was also worried he would be distressed to be removed from his usual environment, but the hospital assured her that he was in safe hands. As an adolescent, he would be placed in his own room, they said.
Early in October, the hospital dropped a bombshell. The teen had been raped by another psychiatric patient. Someone actually saw the alleged offence being committed on the 27th of September and alerted the authorities. In their own wisdom, the authorities only notified the family on the 1st of October, and said the perpetrator had been moved to another hospital. But the damage was done. The promise to keep the teen alone had obviously been thrown out the window. What also offended the family was the nonchalant attitude exhibited by the hospital. Questions were not sufficiently responded to, not that it mattered what they had to say after the fact. They have no idea how many time the rapes happened in the two months the teen had been in hospital, as he has communication problems. They have no clue of the impact of the assault. How did this happen in a hospital where there are nurses, security guards and doctors getting paid to do their work to ensure the welfare of patients?
Less than a month after the incident, boom, another rape on of another 16-year-old at the Bheki Mlangeni District Hospital. The media contacted the relevant authorities and the right noises were made. In an interview with Newzroom Afrika, Acting Gauteng Health MEC, Jack Mamabolo vowed that improvements would be made to public hospitals, and especially to psychiatric wards in the province. Speaking to the same news channel, Democratic Alliance Shadow Minister of Health highlighted that the above incidents were not isolated, but were happening in many hospitals across the country. There is just no real commitment by government to look out for some of society’s vulnerable.
One cannot talk about the mistreatment of people with mental health issues in South Africa without the Life Esidimeni tragedy coming to mind. Over 143 psychiatric patients died from neglect, starvation and other causes following bad decisions made by the Gauteng Health Department. At the risk of repeating myself like a bad record, the rights of people with mental health issues are constantly being trampled upon. People with psychiatric problems are not treated like equal citizens. I remember one mother of an autistic boy remarking that it would have been better if her son had HIV, because organisations for HIV and AIDS are tripping over each other trying to provide services and fighting for the rights of people living with the conditions.
I am crossing fingers for Miss SA as she tries to turn the tide on mindsets that have normalised not treating people with mental illness like they matter. She has quite a mammoth task ahead of her.