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
“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
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
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
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.”
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