The month of July is Psychosocial Disability Awareness Month in South Africa, an important and momentous one as it highlights an all too often shunned and stigmatised topic: mental illness.
According to the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), approximately one in five people will, or do, suffer from a mental illness including, but not limited to, depression, bipolar mood disorder, schizophrenia and anxiety disorders. With the number of people being diagnosed with a mental illness increasing annually, the importance of creating a deeper understanding and acceptance of this subject is paramount.
Unfortunately, in many workplaces employees choose not to disclose, fearing the stigma and shame that is often associated with these conditions. Furthermore, employers may choose to avoid addressing and discussing mental health due to concerns around the consequences or perceived costs this may incur. However, the need to do so is more urgent than ever.
Research shows that mental health issues are on the rise. Figures provided by Discovery Health, South Africa’s leading medical aid, show a 41% increase in payouts relating to mental illness from 2009 to 2014. In addition, psychiatric disorders are now the third largest contributor to the local burden of disease, following closely after HIV/ AIDS and heart disease. These numbers highlight the growing need for employers, and society in general, to proactively address and manage mental health. After all, as shown below, we sadly cannot rely on government hospitals and institutions to do so.
Despite the dire need for it, South Africa’s mental health services and human resources are significantly limited. SADAG states that a shocking 85% of South Africans do not receive treatment for their mental illnesses. There are various reasons for this extremely high number, one being the fact that there are only 18 beds available for every 100 000 people in South Africa’s 23 public mental hospitals.
A 2007 report titled “Mental Health Systems” compiled by the World Health Organisation (WHO) highlights the grim state of mental healthcare in South Africa. According to this report, “The total number of human resources working in the Department of Health mental health facilities or NGOs is 9.3 per 100,000 population. There are 0.28 psychiatrists, 0.45 other medical doctors (not specialised in psychiatry), 7.45 nurses, 0.32 psychologists, 0.4 social workers, 0.13 occupational therapists and 0.28 other health or mental health workers per 100,000 population.”
One would assume and hope that these statistics have improved over the past 10 years but unfortunately, the opposite is true.
The highly publicised “Esidimeni” case is evidence of the utter disregard for people with mental disabilities in South Africa. Close to a hundred mentally ill patients died between March and December last year as a result of being moved from the Life Esidimeni Hospital to various non-governmental organisations (NGOs). This was done due to the Department of Labour wanting to cut costs Despite the patients having various mental conditions, this was not the cause of death for all but one patient. “None of the 93 patients died from a mental illness; they have died from other things like dehydration, diarrhoea, epilepsy, all other things except mental illness,” said the Health Ombudsman, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba.
This case is just the “tip of the iceberg” said Professor Bernard Janse van Rensburg, president of The South African Society for Psychiatrists. “The SA healthcare system is totally fragmented and broken.”
Thus, in the best interests of society and corporate South Africa, responsibility needs to be shared. Ultimately, employers need to confront mental health in the workplace and simply cannot afford to turn a blind eye and hope for the best. Justene Smith, disability expert at Progression, provides insight into the proactive measures organisations can take in managing and addressing mental health.
It’s all about the culture
Creating an accepting, educated and sensitised workforce is imperative and is often the first step in addressing mental health in the workplace. Changing the way in which mental health, and disability in general, is perceived and viewed in the organisation is a difficult but vital task. Awareness workshops and “Disability Days” are one way in which an organisation can improve knowledge of mental health and disability and, in turn, create a more accepting workforce.
Knowledge is key
Empowering and equipping a company’s HR staff to fully understand and deal with mental health issues is also crucial. This can be done through capacity building sessions, offered by Progression. These sessionsare extremely interactive and provide attendees with valuable knowledge of key aspects of disability, increasing awareness and enabling successful integration of people with disabilities into the workplace. There are also various conferences and expos packed with useful information that HR staff could attend. Progression is hosting their 6th annual Disability Conference on the 19th of September. The focus of this year’s conference is “Let’s Talk Mental Health.” All staff members are invited to join our panel of experts as we explore the dynamics surrounding mental disability in the workplace. For more information regarding the conference, visit www.understandingdisability.co.za or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Implementing adequate policies and procedures
Policies specifically focused on disability in the workplace will ensure employees are aware of their rights and the process to follow when disclosing. Having clear and thorough procedures in place ensures that the disclosure process is handled in a professional and confidential manner. Understanding, being aware of and following these processes will encourage staff to disclose and be more comfortable in discussing their disability and their reasonable accommodation requirements.
Flexible workplaces are becoming more and more common. Allowing flexibility in the workplace will allow employers and employees to negotiate working conditions that suit both parties. This will help employees to maintain a healthy work/life balance, improve their mental wellbeing as well as their productivity and efficiency. Many businesses that enforce rigid and unyielding workspaces may be unknowingly contributing to their staff members’ stess levels, a common trigger for relapses in many mental health conditions. In most cases, people with mental illness are entitled to one day of leave per month to collect medication and see their medical practitioner. It is important that employers are aware of and support this right.
This Mental Disability Awareness Month, Progression urges all South Africans to educate themselves on mental health, to reduce the stigma and discrimination that people with mental illness are subjected to and be a part of creating an accepting and inclusive workplace and society.