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“In a deeply unequal society like South Africa, the COVID-19 virus has laid bare an existing mental healthcare service gap and the shocking public health crisis in the country.” These are the reflections of Dr Marion Morkel, Sanlam’s Chief Medical Officer, who also shares how mental health accounted for nearly a fifth of Sanlam’s disability claims in 2020.

Isolation, the loss of loved ones (and often having to grieve alone), and a shift away from the routine of seeing family, friends and colleagues have been devastating changes to grapple with, going against everything we are accustomed to as social beings. The sense of safety and security we had found in everyday rituals was lost, leaving many with a feeling of displacement. “Young people are living in a bubble – quarantined in body and mind,” Dr Morkel adds.

Long-term impact

“There’s also now fatigue over the disease, pandemic protocols, and the incessant uncertainty,” says Dr Morkel. She notes the immediate and long-term aftermath and its impact on mental health; survivor’s guilt can plague one for months or even years, while long COVID can be a constant lingering reminder of one’s own experience. Depression, sleep disturbance, impaired concentration and other symptoms become the shadow hanging over someone’s attempt to return to health.

Our mental health crisis is not new

In 2018, a sixth of the population already suffered from anxiety, depression or a substance use disorder, and nearly two-thirds possibly lived with post-traumatic stress. Only 27% with severe mental disorders were receiving treatment, painting a dismal picture.

And when it comes to available State treatment? According to the research, just 5% of the national health budget went towards mental health for 2019, and only 50% of public hospitals with ‘mental health services’ actually had a psychiatrist. “Perhaps the pandemic has given us an opportunity to turn this around,” says Dr Morkel. “Now’s the time to show collective will to broaden the reach of psychiatric services.”

Just 5% of the national health budget went towards mental health for 2019, and only 50% of public hospitals with ‘mental health services’ actually had a psychiatrist. “Perhaps the pandemic has given us an opportunity to turn this around,” says Dr Marion Morkel, Sanlam’s Chief Medical Officer.

How to protect your mental health

A 2020 study by the Human Sciences Research Council found that around a third of South Africans were depressed, with 45% having felt fearful and 29% having faced loneliness in the first hard lockdown.

To protect and foster your own mental health, Reabetsoe Buys, a Jo’burg psychologist, suggests taking time for self-care, and prioritising holistic health. Here are her five tips for looking after your mental health right now:

  1. Stop what you’re doing, close your eyes and take a few deep breaths. Breathe in for four counts and out for four counts. This will slow your heart rate and calm you down. Try doing a breathing or meditation exercise every morning and every evening for at least 15 minutes each.
  2. Identify what triggers you and solve problems related to it. Is it work, finances, relationships? What will help you manage it differently or deal with it better?
  3. Walk it out! Moving your body will help to burn off some of the stress chemicals our bodies release when we’re anxious. It also allows you to focus on your body instead of only focusing on the anxiety-causing thoughts.
  4. Put your thoughts on paper. By doing this, you externalise what is making you anxious, make it less daunting, and clear your head, which makes it easier to solve problems.
  5. Watch what you’re consuming. This goes for food and information. Diet-wise, it’s important to stay away from caffeine, nicotine and high-sugar products, as these can worsen anxiety. It is vital to consider your environment, too. You can do this by limiting your exposure to distressing news and social media. Of course, it is important to stay up to date, but try to do so without taking in too much negative information.

If you need to speak to someone, consider contacting the following hotlines:

  • South African Depression and Anxiety Group: 0800 567 567
  • Adcock Ingram Depression and Anxiety Helpline: 0800 708 090
  • Lifeline South Africa: 0861 322 322



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