09 September 2015

How poverty may be fuelling hidden depression

About 20 percent of South Africans live on less than R350 per month and this kind of poverty could be having real impacts not only on people’s physical health but also their mental well-being.


Being poor can mean a lot of things - from going hungry to a lack of access to health and education. But going without can also have serious implications for your mental health, including your odds of depression. We look at the issue through the eyes of one Kuruman mom.

Each month, Mary* collects a child grant for her three-year-old daughter. Within hours of collecting the grant, Mary is queuing at the door of the local loan shark in an effort to pay off debts that began last Christmas.

Read: Depression and suicide: SA's unseen killers

“I had to buy Christmas clothes and groceries for myself and my girl,” said Mary, who lives in Kuruman, Northern Cape. “I needed more than the grant itself.”

With informal loan sharks charging as much as almost 50 percent interest, Mary cannot shake the debt. After paying her loan shark, she is left with just R129 for the month. Desperate, Mary even reportedly tried gambling in an effort to pay her debt but said that brought on more problems.

“I’ve tried pulling out from the loan shark, but I am struggling and need the money,” said Mary, who has been diagnosed with depression.  “I’ve never told my boyfriend about this problem.  I feel ashamed and worthless.”

According to 2014 figures from Statistics South Africa, about 20 percent of South Africans survive on about R320 per month – a threshold the body calls “the food poverty line."

Globally, poverty has linked to poor access to health care, poorer health outcomes and a higher rate of mental illness. A 2003 study published in American Journal of Epidemiology reviewed all available research that looked at possible links between poverty and depression. The study found that people living in poverty had higher odds of being depressed.

Read: Emo teens and the rising suicide rate in SA

Douglas Tafireyi is social worker with the Family and Marriage Association of South Africa, which specialises in relationship counselling. Tafireyi works in Kuruman’s Thuthuzela Care Centre and said that many men and women like Mary suffering from depression do not seek help.

“Most of the cases I deal with involve troubled marriages and more often than not financial problems are at the core of the problems,” he said. “In many cases, you will find one of the partners is abusing finances, sometimes through gambling, and they do not want to talk about it.”

“People don’t want to talk about it ….They feel ashamed,” he added.  “These challenges lead people to present with stress and depression, and some feel suicidal.”

While Tafireyi said that social workers cannot always solve couples’ problems, seeking help is the first step in trying to improve the situation.

Read: Signs that depressed people want to commit suicide

“We are not always in a position to assist with budgeting issues, but we can help the client help themselves but only if they admit they have a problem and are open to seeking help,” he said. Tshwaragano Hospital Dr Enyata Gazua urged people who were suffering from depression, stress and anxiety to seek counselling.

Mary said she is planning on seeking help.

Nationally, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group runs a 24-hour helpline on 0800 12 13 14 as well as a suicide hotline 0800 567 567.

Meanwhile South African Social Security Agency’s Masego Phemelo said the agency continues to try to educate grant recipients the dangers of illegal loan sharks. The agency has also taken steps to try to ensure that loan sharks do not operate near grant pay points.

*Name withheld upon request

Also read:

Strong link found between depression and incontinence

Vision loss increases risk of suicidal thoughts

The link between sleep and suicide

Health-e News is South Africa’s award-winning dedicated health news service producing news and in-depth analysis for the country’s print and television media.


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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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