South Africa has failed to implement policy to promote access to mental health treatment in the country. That is the view of the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), ahead of World Mental Health Day on Saturday (10 October).

This year’s international theme is; “Mental Health for all: Greater Investment, Greater Access.”

In a media briefing, experts took a critical look at shortcomings in addressing mental health in South Africa.

Suicide-related calls during lockdown 

Since the beginning of South Africa’s lockdown and the country’s first confirmed case of the coronavirus in March, Sadag has received more than 300 000 calls on its helpline.

More than 65 000 have been for suicide-related cases.

Sadag Operations Director, Cassey Chambers, says access to treatment for mental health in South Africa remains a serious challenge for many who are battling to cope with illnesses which are still not taken seriously.

“Only one in 10 South Africans who have a mental health issue have access to treatment. That is terrible because the people that don’t get care are at a higher risk of suicide for themselves, the impact on their families, the economy.  Depression is the leading cause of disability worldwide. It has an impact on companies, the economy in SA. Only three out of nine provinces have child psychologists.”

The coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown in South Africa have caused a surge in erratic behaviour as a result of untreated mental health issues:


Psychiatrist and Sadag Board Chairperson Dr. Frans Korb says the non-availability of chronic medication under the lockdown has exacerbated the conditions of many.

“We have seen a steep increase in psychiatric problems, depression, anxiety, and suicide has had a dramatic increase. Researchers are writing that we are almost expecting a tsunami of psychiatric disorders. One could talk about the cases from the pandemic. It is the disease itself, losing jobs, people that were under control, their depression, substance abuse, they went out of control.”

Investment in treatment

Chairperson of the SA Mental Health Alliance, Dr. Mvuyiso Talatala, says while South Africa has made certain gains in addressing mental health, the country has failed to invest in making access to treatment available to vulnerable communities.

He says South Africa is well under the World Health Organisation’s recommendation for mental health budgets.

“In terms of implementation, we have been poor. A report by the Human Rights Commission found that we failed to implement policy, but we have also done poorly in terms of financial investment. It recommends that countries should spend 10% of their health budget on mental health. Studies that have been done show that SA spends about 5%. Other provinces spend much less than 5%. Severe mental health issues -schizophrenia, depression, bipolar – have an impact on the population. Common mental health disorders, they have been found to cost countries a lot of money.”

Sadag has launched an audiobook titled: Staying Safe from COVID-19. It’s aimed at creating awareness about mental health and the importance of getting treatment.