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Successful South African Mental Health Conference

The South African Mental Health Conference on 24-25 April brought together Government, civil society, academics, and mental health practitioners to talk about mental health in South Africa.

Dr Sandile Buthelezi, DG of Health, Jeanette Hunter, Deputy DG, Dr Gustaaf Wolvaardt, MD of FPD
and Prof Olive Shisana, chairperson of the Conference.

Opening the first ever mental health conference organised by FPD, Prof Shisana outlined the many challenges facing the mental health sector in South Africa. Half of our public hospitals have no psychiatrists and almost a third has no clinical psychologists. Many speakers over the two-day conference echoed these, and other disheartening statistics.

A big feature of the conference was the number of speakers who spoke about their own lived experience of mental health conditions. World renowned singer Simphiwe Dana spoke about the difficulty of growing up in an era where mental health challenges were not recognised, saying “My state of mind was not understood. How does a young African child explain to their hardworking parents that they feel sad? Being moody was considered to be ungrateful and rude, so I learned to keep my feelings in check, so not to be seen as weak.”

Christine Nxumalo from the Life Esidimeni Family Committee described how, when she first took her sister to the local clinic, nobody understood mental health. She said that there was a disconnect between policy, and what was happening on the ground, and called on the delegates at the conference to ensure that mental health services in the public health sector improve. Christine’s sister was one of the people who died when they were moved from the Life Esidimeni hospital into community-based facilities that had not been properly vetted. An exhibition of photographs and stories of some of the families who lost loved ones in that tragedy was also on display at the conference.

Five tracks at the conference covered topics ranging from mental health and traditional healing to mental health chatbots. Many community organisations got the chance to showcase their best practices and programmes. Satellite sessions focussed on crosscutting issues such as adolescent and child mental health. Another big theme was the importance of taking context into account when designing mental health programmes, and when communicating about mental health, especially with regards to the stigma that still exists. Some novel ways of communicating were explored.

A major highlight of the conference was the unveiling of the long-awaited new National Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategic Plan 2023 – 2030.

The policy was generally welcomed, but repeatedly, speakers and participants spoke of the importance of implementation, something that Minister of Health, Dr Joe Phaahla recognised in his opening plenary speech, and which was echoed by the Deputy President, Paul Mashatile, when he closed the conference.

The Deputy President also thanked Dr Wolvaardt, the programme committee, and the FPD conference department, for all their work in putting the conference together.


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