Mental health interest groups in South African have called on the government to invest more in community mental health services following the deaths of 94 mentally-ill patients who died after they were transferred out from Life Esidimeni to 27 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in Gauteng Province.

Following the deaths of the 94 mentally-ill patients, the interest groups believe that day-care social health programmes can help overcome these challenges.

The South African Federation for Mental Health Advocacy and Development Project Manager, Charlene Sunkel, says there is also a need to educate families and community members about mental health.

“The whole idea is to put them (the Patients) back with families, but unfortunately families are not well educated about mental illnesses. They often lack the skills to support mentally-ill relatives effectively. There is also sometimes a lack of other support structures within the community, like activities or more skills development, kind of day-care social health care programmes.”

The Gauteng provincial government has placed three big provincial hospitals on high alert as teams of specialists assess the conditions of mentally-ill patients across the province.

Clinical Psychologist Zama Mbele says one other thing which needs to be rooted out is stigma.

“One of the challenges that we face both globally as well as in South Africa and southern Africa is access to treatment and this is because of the stigmatisation where people feel like they do not want to access health facilities or do not want to be known to be ill, as well as the lack of resources that we have.”

Mbele agrees with Sunkel that dealing with mental illness should not be a problem if communities are better equipped. “There are quite a few things that we can do; increasing insight and informing people a lot more through awareness,” he added.

“The second thing we need to do is de-stigmatisation. So, not only to make it for people to come out and say, ‘Hey, this is what I’m struggling with’. We should also allow people to share their experiences a lot more which will empower them as well as other people who will find it difficult.”

Meanwhile, the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s leading opposition party, has accused the country’s Human Rights Commission of failing to act. Gauteng Province DA Health Spokesperson Jack Bloom says the party hopes the commission is going to be called to account by Parliament.

“It’s very disappointing that a complaint was lodged with the Human Rights Commission in March last year and nothing was done about it. Had they acted then, they could have prevented the deaths of the 94 patients,” he says.

“This shows that the Human Rights Commission also needs to be accountable. Clearly, there is something wrong. This urgent plea could have saved lives.”