Mental health is still health’s ‘stepchild’ and remains underfunded, understaffed – Archyde

This path was unexpected, hard and emotionally draining. Sometimes I didn’t know if I was coming or going. What made it hard was watching my niece come to terms with the fact that her mother could never live with us again… and it’s not going to get any better.

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This is how our journey in mental health began.

It started with my sister getting lost in the Kimberley for about three days. We ran back and forth between clinics and hospitals before she was finally admitted to Charlotte Maxeke Hospital. Their stay should have lasted a maximum of three days, but ended up being three months. Doctors struggled to diagnose her because she was showing unusually rare symptoms. This led to test after test being run and an international research team being invited to watch them as they researched dementia and Alzheimer’s.

We were then consulted and discussed about her diagnosis and told that it would be best for her to be admitted to Randfontein Life Esidimeni. When we asked if we could take her home and care for her, the doctors advised us against it and insisted on Randfontein Life Esidimeni because of the type of care she needed.

That was hard to accept – so much so that we had to go to counseling to deal with the only decision we had to make, or rather, accept.

She had to go through a “settling-in process” before we could visit her. When we first saw them after the transfer we were unsure about Randfontein Life Esidimeni but the setting was welcoming and the staff always kept us informed about doctor visits, clinic visits, physical therapy, medication etc. Even if we called we would get amazing updates.

In all the months at Life Esidimeni she has really improved physically and her interaction with us was like getting better. She enjoyed it when we brought cakes and chicken as they were her favorite foods. She even smiled and giggled at times, but I loved how she lit up like a Christmas tree when her daughter walked into the room.

The worst came when we were told the facilities were closing. We received a text message telling us that she had been moved and later received a call from Ethel Ncube, the director of Precious Angels, informing us of her death. She didn’t even have the usual decency to give us the true date of my sister’s death, and she then proceeded to lie about the cause of her death. She even prevented us from getting access to see or pick up her body for over five days until we had to call the police.

We then decided to do an autopsy because nothing made sense. We then learned that she shared a Hebron morgue owned and operated by Put U to Rest with eight other Life Esidimeni Mental Healthcare users who appeared to have suffered a similar fate at the hands of Precious Angels in Atteridgeville and Danville.

One of the few positive outcomes of this tragedy was meeting Section 27 and being told about the eight other bodies. They have supported me and the other families I have met throughout this time.

Just when I thought it couldn’t get any better, we were blessed by Prof. Malegapuru Makgoba’s work and his amazing report. It was our government’s first honest finding, followed by the award and recommendations of former Chief Justice Moseneke. These were not fully complied with – the “living” monument or place of remembrance was not erected despite the many “ignored” requests to update it. The healing sessions were great because they allowed families to tell the Department of Health what had happened to their loved ones and share their stories.

Six years later and nothing has changed, mental health is still health’s “stepchild” and remains underfunded, understaffed. Nothing has changed on the Mental Health Review Board and the issues surrounding the licensing of NGOs remain. The Ministry of Health has made no progress in raising mental health awareness and conducting awareness campaigns to ensure mental health facilities are built, professionals are employed and basic levels of access are available in all regions. Such an incentive could help in the “early detection” of mental health problems. Instead of people eventually being institutionalized because they’re never diagnosed, more people could be taught how to manage their mental health and given the opportunity to live “normal” lives while drowning out the stigma attached to it.

Unfortunately, the Department of Health has said and done very little about mental health at both the national and provincial levels. This worsened with the discovery of Covid-19 when the families of the survivors struggled because they were once again forgotten and never really kept up to date, although many requests for updates were sent to the Prime Minister’s Office and Gauteng Department of Health became .

The investigation was not easy. While most people thought things had calmed down, we had kept knocking on the NPA’s doors with the support of Section2. We didn’t stop until January 2020, when Minister Ronald Lamola announced that he had asked North Gauteng Magistrate Dunstan Mlambo to appoint a judge to conduct an inquiry. Judge Teffo was appointed and on July 19 the formal hearing into the Life Esidimeni inquiry began in the High Court in Pretoria.

Shortly after it began, it was marred by one postponement after another, leaving families worried and concerned that it could be postponed indefinitely – especially after learning from a reliable source that the NPA was at some point aware of political interference was affected, which may or may not have resulted in the investigation not taking place until now, six years later.

The January 19 testimony was particularly difficult for me because I was Dr. Wadvalla’s account of my sister, but it was even harder to relive those absolutely horrifying moments; it left me depressed, sad and angry. DM/MC

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