UPDATED 10 DECEMBER 2015
As mental illness remains shrouded in stigma, real questions remain about where South Africa is in the fight for better mental health .
In some corners of South Africa, those living with mental disorders are still tied to trees and denied food by the very people meant to protect them – their families.
Charlene Sunkel was 19 years old when she was first diagnosed with schizophrenia but says it took her nine years before she got the right medication. Before she found medication that worked for her, Sunkel said she suffered adverse side effects and was admitted to hospital. She says being admitted to hospital was a wake up call.
Now, Sunkel has devoted her life to advocating for people living with mental disorders. As the advocacy and development programme manager for the South Africa Federation for Mental Health, Sunkel recently conducted community workshops in the Northern Cape to educate patients and families.
Community health workers based at the Lehnoloholo Adams Clinic in Douglas, Northern Cape have said that many families in the rural areas in which they work continue to mistakenly believe mental illness is a curse.
In a small study conducted among about 80 people living with mental illness in the the North West, the international academic consortium Programme for Improving Mental Health Care (PRIME) found that patients reported being denied food, tied to trees and being forced to work without pay because of their mental illness by family and community members.
But families have a crucial role to play in supporting those living with mental health issues, cautions Sunkel who added that not only support but living a healthy lifestyle have helped her adhere to her daily treatment.
Sunkel is also part of the recently created Rural Mental Health Campaign, which released a report in October detailing the challenges rural mental health patients face, including stigma.
“I feel ashamed of my diagnosis and the severity of it,” said a North West patient named Jill who asked not to be identified in the report. “People see mentally ill people as being mad and (as people who) should be locked away in an institution”.
According to Sunkel, stigma remains a leading barrier to care.