October is acknowledged as World Mental Health Month. The 10th of October is recognised as World Mental Health Day and 10 October 2017 marks the 25th anniversary of the recognition of this day. Yet, how many people in South Africa are aware or have this day marked in a calendar for an event or an awareness campaign? That is often the reality of mental illness, the invisible disability. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression is the leading cause of ill health and disability worldwide.
According to the latest estimates from the WHO, more than 300 million people worldwide are now living with depression, an increase of more than 18% between 2005 and 2015. Lack of support for people with mental disorders, coupled with a fear of stigma, prevent many from accessing the treatment they need to live healthy and productive lives.
In South Africa, psychiatric disorders are estimated to be the third largest contributor to the local burden of disease and statistics indicate that more than 17 million people in our country may have a mental health disorder. Justene Smith, Disability expert at Progression, states, “This figure is extremely significant, given the lack of a clear understanding of mental health conditions and the impact that this can have for people in terms of performing key life activities such as working, learning and communicating, amongst other things.”
The theme for 2017’s World Mental Health Day is “Mental Health in the Workplace” which ties in well with our own legislation in South Africa which promotes inclusion and equality for persons with a disability in the workplace. The Employment Equity Act no 5 of 1998 defines disability as a “long term or recurring physical or mental impairment that substantially limits a person’s entry into or advancement in employment.”
“Persons with a mental disability face several barriers in the workplace which include inadequate employer education, stigma around mental health conditions as well as a lack of understanding of the symptoms and management of conditions,” Smith explains. She goes on to highlight, “This lack of understanding often further limits a person with a mental health condition because employers and colleagues alike often equate mental disability as the inability to work or make a valuable contribution to the workplace and the South African economy, which is a misconception.”
For a number of people with a mental illness such as Depression, Bipolar Mood Disorder, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) or Schizophrenia, they would meet the criteria for classification as a disability under the EE Act. This means that employers need to be more aware of their responsibilities around best practise for the management of disability in the workplace and the rights of the individuals in their working environments.
With this in mind, it is important for organisations in South African to have policies and procedures that outline their commitment to following best practise and promoting equality. Smith emphasises the importance of having this in place in order to offer clear guidelines to staff regarding what to do when working with a person with a disability and also provide employees with a sense of trust that their organisation has acknowledged their rights.
However, the reality remains that mental disability is on the rise and figures provided by Discovery Health showing a 41% increase in pay-outs relating to mental illness from 2009 to 2014, seem to confirm the findings of the WHO. Smith concludes, “While there is definitely increasing awareness around mental health, it is important for us to acknowledge days such as today with the aim of creating a deeper understanding of mental wellbeing and addressing some of the stigmas that still exist in our society”.