The statistics are scary. As many as one in six South Africans suffer from anxiety, depression, or substance use problems, according to a report released by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) just a year ago.
“And this doesn’t even include more serious conditions such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. Additionally, studies indicate that over 40% of people living with HIV in South Africa have a diagnosable mental disorder,” says Melese Tumato Shula, Skills Development Coordinator at the Catholic Health Care Association of Southern Africa (CATHCA).
CATHCA is the Catholic Church’s associate body for health in South Africa, Botswana, and Eswatini.
Dr. Melese said the mental health crisis has been exacerbated by the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, “especially among the poor and vulnerable in our society. Socio-economic factors also have a negative impact on mental health.”
Melese further told Timescape Magazine that “only 27% of South Africans reporting severe mental illnesses ever receive treatment. This means that nearly three-quarters of these sufferers are not accessing any form of mental healthcare at all.”
He put this down to “stigmas surrounding mental health.”
“Stigma, discrimination, and misinformation related to mental health conditions, as well as concerns about the cost of healthcare or counseling services, contribute to a substantive treatment gap,” he told Timescape Magazine.
“Due to a lack of understanding, those who suffer from mental health challenges generally face stigma and discrimination. There is a fear around mental health in general. When asked to define mental health, many people will first think of “madness”, and be fearful. Even milder conditions are often met with a lack of sympathy: those with anxiety are seen as “weak”; those with substance abuse issues are considered to be lacking in moral fibre; those with depression are told to “snap out of it,” Melese said.
“Public knowledge of one’s mental illness can result in social exclusion. That creates a stumbling block for seeking support. In many cases, that exclusion and lack of support and treatment can lead to suicide. The mental health crisis gets worse because many people don’t even know where to go to get help, or are too scared to seek it,” he explained.
To remedy the situation, CATHCA has launched a one-year pilot project funded by the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers (ACMHM) for the period January-December 2022 to support the Catholic parishes of All Saints and Our Lady of Mercy in the Archdiocese of Johannesburg “to develop a Mental Health Ministry (MHM) as an integral part of their parish activities.”
“It is important to get the Church involved on the parish level. The primary burden of mental healthcare falls on community-based providers. Clinics, support groups, even lay counselors and community leaders have to step in where institutionalized help is not available,” Melese told Timescape Magazine.
Experts in mental health indicate that the nature of South Africa’s mental health situation requires a South African, context-based solution.
CATHCA’s parish mental health ministry “is intended to raise awareness around mental health issues in their particular contexts.”
“CATHCA decided to embark on the journey of implementing a parish mental health ministry to motivate community leaders to join hands in creating awareness around these issues, and to work together towards eradicating the stigma and discrimination associated with mental illness,” Melese said.
He said the pilot project “will help us understand how parish communities take to this ministry.”
He said other Parishes will be encouraged to join in the fight against the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health and to encourage those affected to seek help.
He outlined six principles CATHCA believes underline the importance of engaging in parish mental health ministry.
These include the fact that it’s a response to Christ’s call “to attend to those who suffer from mental illness and to provide hope and healing,” the enormity of the burden which means everyone is affected by mental health concerns; and the fact that “those suffering from mental illness should not be stigmatized, discriminated or judged.”
In addition, “Mental illness remains poorly understood even by clergy and others in positions of influence. Consequently, we all should raise awareness, and join government and civil society to bring to the surface and work towards changing mindsets.
The Church, health care professionals, and scientific researchers should work together to improve mental health care. An effective and sustainable response to mental illness in the Church requires a collaborative approach.”
He said phase I of the project will entail the training of Parish Pastoral Council members and the heads of different groups and sodalities within the parish structure. “The Association for Catholic Mental Health Ministry has also shared resources with CATHCA to develop this ministry. The content of this ministry includes recognizing disorders and signs of psychological distress, knowledge of risk factors, causes, and interventions, awareness of mental health professional support available to the community, attitudes, and beliefs that encourage help-seeking behaviors, and acknowledging when to obtain mental health information and guidance.”
“The goal of our training is to encourage conversations around mental illness and to create a safe environment for individuals to share and seek help on issues relating to mental illness within the structure of the Catholic parish. The mental health ministry team has a responsibility to become familiar with a general understanding of common signs and symptoms of mental illness, be able to gather a sense of a presenting concern/ issue and risk factors, and have knowledge of local services and community resources,” Melese noted.
Phase two of the project will require the trained parish mental health team to raise awareness about the importance of mental health, actively work towards eradicating stigma, engage in dialogue with all parishioners through their different groups/sodalities, and approach sensitive situations with careful consideration.
“CATHCA has created positive relationships with the health facilities and organizations working in the mental health sector around the two parishes for the referral protocols and also for close collaboration,” Malese concluded.