17 September 2014

Akeso launches emergency response vehicle for people in psychological crisis


Statistics point to a steady escalation in the global incidence of mental health disorders, and consequently, the number of tragedies associated with these conditions. The recent deaths of high profile celebrities from suicide and drug overdoses including Robin Williams, Peaches Geldof, L’Wren Scott, Cory Monteith, Alexander McQueen, Whitney Houston, among others, highlight the urgency of seeking treatment for mental health disorders.

This week’s launch of Akeso Clinics’ Psychiatric Intervention Response Unit will come to the rescue of South Africans caught in the grip of a potentially life-threatening psychological emergency who need immediate help and containment.

Intended to service the community at large, the Psychiatric Intervention Response Unit has been launched to fill the gap for emergency response units in the mental health arena, and consists of a hotline coupled with a vehicular response unit.

“Our Psychiatric Intervention Response Unit vehicle is manned by qualified paramedics who are trained to assess and manage the psychological state of the patient,” says Akeso spokesperson Sandy Lewis. All paramedics have completed Intermediate Life Support courses in addition to specialised training on psychological disorders and patient management.  

“While South Africa is serviced by numerous emergency response units and personnel trained in physical emergency medicine, there is a real need for a specialist psychiatric unit, geared to recognise and help people suffering from mental health disorders,” says Lewis.

Read: Warning signs of suicide

Call for help

By dialling the number 0861 HELP US (4357 87), callers can access immediate telephonic support and, based on the counsellor’s assessment of the situation, if the caller is in crisis, the intervention vehicle will be dispatched. Once on the scene and after the patient has been safely contained by the paramedics, the intervention vehicle will transport the patient to an appropriate facility, either public or private, depending on patient capacity.

According to Lewis, this emergency psychological service, which is free for all South Africans, is currently operational in Gauteng and Kwa-Zulu Natal. Plans are underway to launch the service in the Western Cape within the next few weeks.

The Gauteng and KwaZulu-Natal response units have been operating for a few weeks and to date, have received call-outs for cases involving domestic violence; substance abuse; geriatric patients; patients experiencing a manic mood disorder episode; patients who have or are seriously threatening suicide, among others. 

These desperate calls for help point to the state of SA’s mental health care. And the picture is grim.

Mental illness in South Africa

“It is estimated that approximately 20% of South Africans suffer from a mental disorder. Of those, 75% do not receive the care they need to manage their illness; 22 people commit suicide in South Africa every day, while 220 try to take their own lives on a daily basis. 43.7% of those with HIV/AIDS have a mental health condition; and in a recent survey, South Africa ranked second highest for substance abuse disorders compared against 14 other countries. Mental health disorders are the third highest contributor to the local burden of disease, after HIV and other infectious disorders.

Read: Depression and suicide: SA's unseen killers

Low mental healthcare budget in SA

Despite this, mental healthcare receives a disproportionately small portion of the healthcare budget. And against this backdrop of a high prevalence of mental health disorders, South Africans must also contend with an abnormal level of violent crime and abuse against women and children,” says Lewis.

The country’s official crime rates reveal that 45 murders are committed every day; 182 acts of sexual abuse, 511 accounts of serious assault, and 473 accounts of common assault. Rape Crisis puts the official reported rape statistic at almost 27 rapes each day, and the South African Medical Research Council reports that 40% of men have hit their partners. 

Child abuse is rife, with statistics for 2011/12 from the South African Police Service recording 25 862 sexual offences involving children between April 2011 and March 2012. The statistics also show that 793 children were murdered. In the same period, over 20 000 children were victims of assault.

Read: Mental illness linked to abuse

Link between mental healthcare and crime

It is no co-incidence that a country with such high levels of mental illness, coupled with such low levels of mental healthcare has such high levels of violent crime and suicide.

“There is a terrible stigma attached to mental illness, which prevents open and frank discussion about what it is, how it displays, and how it can be managed. Because of this stigma, many mental illnesses are left undiagnosed, the consequence of which can be dire for both the individuals suffering from the illness, as well as their friends and family,” says Lewis.

“The government is doing its best and so is the private sector. Together we can do more. While we cannot fix the ills in the system, the launch of Akeso’s Psychiatric Intervention Response Unit will make a difference in the lives of those in severe psychological trouble.

“What if we could prevent just one of these terrible tragedies everyday? It may not sound like much, but I can assure you it would mean the world to that one person and his or her family,” says Lewis. “This is one way Akeso can contribute to a mentally healthier South Africa.” 

Read more:
SA has eighth highest suicide rate
WHO concerned about the global suicide rate
Could a blood test predict suicide risk?

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Depression expert

Michael Simpson has been a senior psychiatric academic, researcher, and Professor in several countries, having worked at London University in the UK; McMaster University in Canada; Temple University in Philadelphia, USA.; and the University of Natal in South Africa.

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