Psychosocial Disability Awareness is commemorated each year in July. This year, the SA Federation for Mental Health (SAFMH) will be running the theme “See me, hear me, include me: The impact of COVID-19 on persons with psychosocial disability”, focusing on raising awareness about the ways in which the global pandemic is affecting persons with psychosocial disability (PD).
The campaign seeks to bring to light the ongoing barriers to mental health services and ways in which support to persons with PD could be improved and made more accessible. The campaign will also highlight how the pandemic has affected the mental health of all people, not just those with pre-existing mental health conditions.
According to the Mental Health Coordinating Council (2021), PD refer to disability stemming from mental illness, a condition which is more difficult to see or understand. While a diagnosis of mental illness and medical treatment is essential in addressing the illness, from a social model and human rights perspective it is the environmental barriers, lack of understanding, stigma and discrimination that a person with a mental illness experiences which imposes the disabling impact and possible violation of rights. Persons with PD are known to experience increasing difficulty in accessing and even maintaining employment, housing, education and social relationships, all of which contribute to and perpetuate their disabilities. From this perspective, disability is not about a condition or impairment of the person, but is rather due to societal, environmental and institutional barriers that prevent the person from living a full and meaningful life.
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, mental health services in low and middle income countries were insufficient, and access to services were negatively affected by factors such as poverty, poor infrastructure and service provision, and stigma (Hailemariam & Pathare, 2020).
In South Africa, our failing health and social systems were further exposed as the country struggled to address the demands of the pandemic. The South African Mental Health Policy Framework 2013-2020 has expired and requires urgent review. The World Health Assembly in May 2021 has for the first time included an indicator on preparedness of states for providing mental health and psychosocial support during emergencies.
Cox et al (2020 ) explains that the pandemic, together with the declining economy, have adversely affected the mental health of many people and have further created new obstacles, especially for those who already had a mental illness. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused anxiety and fear, with prevention measures such as quarantining and isolation also leading to uncertainty, fear and anxiety for persons with PD (Ayhan Balik & Sukut, 2021).
For too long, persons with PD have been confined to the shadows and hidden out of sight. SAFMH, together with community based mental health organisations, are calling on persons with PD to share their voices and experiences during this pandemic. Now more than ever we need to hear, listen and include the voices of persons with PD as we call on duty bearers to ensure that persons with PD are guaranteed accessibility to services and information during the pandemic.
It is time for all South Africans to join hands in the fight not just against COVID-19, but also against the continued neglect of mental health, perpetuated by stigma, prejudice and discrimination. We need to see a greater commitment, accountability and resourcing from duty bearers to ensure that persons with PD and anyone else with a mental health condition, can receive the treatment and support that both local and international policies, legislation and treaties entitle them to.
SAFMH always reminds people that nobody is immune to developing a mental health condition. And while there is absolutely no shame in admitting to having a mental illness and seeking treatment for it (in the same way one would for conditions such as, for example, hypertension or diabetes), it is important to remember that safeguarding mental health is essential, not just for persons with existing mental health conditions, but for EVERYONE. After all, there can be no health without mental health.