By Sumaiyah Docrat and Crick Lund
South Africa has taken steps towards strengthening mental health care in the last 20 years. These include reforming the Mental Health Care Act 2002 and developing a National Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategic Plan 2013–2020.
The strategic plan aims to integrate mental health into general health services to reduce the burden of untreated mental health conditions. It also aims to transform the system to provide quality mental health services that are accessible, equitable and comprehensive, particularly for community-based mental health care.
But significant information gaps have limited the country’s ability to initiate a sustained response to mental health care. For example, the most up to date population based prevalence estimates of the burden of mental disorders date as far back as 2003/4.
The failure to implement the public policy on mental health was brought to light by the Life Esidimeni tragedy in 2017. Nearly 150 patients died after being moved from the Life Esidimeni Hospital to unlicensed facilities.
New challenges are now arising with the planned introduction of the National Health Insurance (NHI) scheme, which is intended to move South Africa closer to universal health coverage. But early evidence from NHI pilot districts show an inconsistency with the strategic plan and limited integration of mental health. If the relevant priorities aren’t explicitly reflected in the policies and activities supporting the NHI, mental health is likely to remain on the back burner.
The system must be clear about the care that mental health patients are entitled to and how providers will be identified and paid. Mental health care has to be recognised as an integral part of the health care system.