Mental Health Matters To Us All
Mental health problems are at a crisis point in South Africa, with those affected facing stigmas and even social exclusion — which leads 73% to not seek help. Shula Melese of the Catholic Health Care Association explains the problem, and what the Church is doing to help alleviate it.
Mental health is a public health problem in South African society today. According to statistics released by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) just a year ago, as many as one in six South Africans suffer from anxiety, depression or substance-use problems — 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.
The shocking part is that only 27% of South Africans reporting severe mental illness ever receive treatment. This means that nearly three-quarters of these sufferers are not accessing any form of mental healthcare at all. We understand that stigmas surrounding mental health pose a major stumbling block. Stigma, discrimination and misinformation related to mental health conditions, as well as concerns about the cost of healthcare or counselling services, contribute to a substantive treatment gap.
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”.
Public knowledge of one’s mental illness can result in social exclusion, which can create a stumbling block for seeking support. In many cases, that exclusion, as well as 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.
Parish pilot project
To that end, earlier this year the Catholic Health Care Association of Southern Africa (Cathca) launched a one-year pilot project, funded by the Association of Catholic Mental Health Ministers to support the Catholic parishes of All Saints in Ennerdale and Our Lady of Mercy in Emdeni, both in the archdiocese of Johannesburg, to develop a Parish Mental Health Ministry 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 counsellors and community leaders are having to step in where institutionalised help is not available.
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.
The effects of the Covid-19 pandemic have exacerbated mental health conditions, especially among the poor and vulnerable in our society. Socio-economic factors also have a negative impact on mental health.
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. We selected two parishes in the archdiocese of Johannesburg where there are two Cathca member organisations active. This pilot project will help us understand how parish communities take to this ministry. After a year, we will involve other parishes to join in the fight against the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health, and to encourage those affected to seek help.
There are six principles which we at Cathca believe underline the importance of engaging in a parish mental health ministry.
- As a faith-based organisation, we believe that Christ calls us to attend to those who suffer from mental illness and to provide hope and healing.
- The scope and burden of mental illness in our society is enormous. We are all affected by mental health concerns.
- Those suffering from mental illness should not be stigmatised, judged or discriminated against.
- 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 mental health issues to the surface and work towards changing mindsets.
- We must meet and attend to those in need where they are.
- Those impacted by suicide need our compassionate response.
The Church, healthcare 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.
This project has two phases. Under the first phase, Cathca trains 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 recognising 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 behaviours, and acknowledging when to obtain mental health information and guidance.
What parishes will do
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.
In the second phase of this project, the trained parish mental health team is expected to raise awareness about the importance of mental health, and 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 organisations working in the mental health sector around the two parishes for the referral protocols and also for close collaboration.
Dr Shula Melese is the skills development coordinator of the Catholic Health Care Association. For more on Cathca, see www.cathca.org