Another silent pandemic

Many people I meet in the office and corridors at work speak of having rushing thoughts, a racing heart and tiredness where sleep is no cure. Many of the people I encounter are refugees and asylum seekers, women, single mothers, eking out a precarious life in the informal sector and, in many ways, excluded from accessing services to prevent the impacts of chronic stress and trauma on the mind and body. The people I encounter are a small representation of a much broader concern. We have a silent pandemic – mental health.

It is fitting that October marks Mental Health Awareness Month with the continued strain of the past ten months and remaining months of this year, which have largely been plagued by the loss of certainty, jobs, routine, family and friends, and increasing levels of poverty and violence. It seems there is little holding us together. The growing mental health needs in South Africa need to be urgently addressed.

The South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), a non-profit organisation trying to fill a gaping hole in South Africa’s health system, provides free mental health services and counselling support, shared worrying statistics earlier this month.

‘Between January and September, 2021 SADAG received 466,607 calls, an increase of 47% on 2020; and. Their suicide helpline received 85,516 calls: that amounts to 2,200 calls per day for nine months from people with suicidal thoughts.’ (South Africa’s mental health epidemic: Love Don’t L… (dailymaverick.co.za)

Despite the growing nature of mental illness in South Africa and its social and economic consequences for individuals, families and communities, little is being done to manage this silent pandemic. As we ready ourselves for the last months of 2021, take a moment to consider what would need to change at various levels (individually, in your community and at the health and policy level) for our society to be more attentive and responsive to those experiencing the current silences around mental health.

How can we assist those we know who are currently in the darkness of anxiety and depression. If perhaps you feel the endlessness of the night ahead, read this blessing.

A Blessing for the Longest Night by Jan Richardson

All throughout these months
as the shadows
have lengthened,
this blessing has been
gathering itself,
making ready,
preparing for
this night.

It has practiced
walking in the dark,
traveling with
its eyes closed,
feeling its way
by memory
by touch
by the pull of the moon
even as it wanes.

So believe me
when I tell you
this blessing will
reach you
even if you
have not light enough
to read it;
it will find you
even though you cannot
see it coming.

You will know
the moment of its
arriving
by your release
of the breath
you have held
so long;
a loosening
of the clenching
in your hands,
of the clutch
around your heart;
a thinning
of the darkness
that had drawn itself
around you.

This blessing
does not mean
to take the night away
but it knows
its hidden roads,
knows the resting spots
along the path,
knows what it means
to travel
in the company
of a friend.

So when
this blessing comes,
take its hand.
Get up.
Set out on the road
you cannot see.

This is the night
when you can trust
that any direction
you go,
you will be walking
toward the dawn.

Abigail Dawson

Abigail Dawson holds a Masters in Development Studies, Sociology, from the University of Witwatersrand. Her activist and academic interests have focused on migration in a South African context. She is a qualified social worker and has provided counselling for migrant women and children. She hopes to bring change to the current public and global narrative on migration through effective and creative communication, networking and advocacy to ensure equitable communities for all people living in South Africa.

abigail.dawson@jrs.net
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