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The Economic Cost of South Africa’s Mental Health Crisis

By Dr Frank Magwegwe, 23 March 2022

Mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety cost the economy more than R200 billion through people missing work and presenteeism, a situation in which employees are at work but perform at lower levels, primarily as a result of mental ill health.

To make matters worse, South Africans are the second-most stressed employees in the world. Lump the impact of COVID-19 on top of this and it’s easy to see why our country is facing a mental health crisis.

Corporate Wellness Executive at Sanlam Health Solutions, Dr Frank Magwegwe says, “South Africa is a challenging place to work and live in. You have the persistent threat of crime, the constant negative news cycle, high levels of unemployment and ongoing social comparisons due to excessive use of social media. Then you also have the problem of retrenchments where employees are either afraid of being retrenched or harbour guilt about not having lost their jobs when others did. In addition to these stresses, some people work in environments where there is a stigma attached to self-care practices such as regularly taking leave from work, which makes it difficult for people to unplug from the now common habit of constant connectivity.”

Dr Frank Magwegwe

According to Dr Magwegwe, being constantly inured in these kinds of environments leads to excessive stress and high anxiety which can directly cause depression. He offers these insights to help employees navigate mental health, particularly within the workplace.

How to ask for help

Dr Magwegwe says one of the hallmarks of depression, high anxiety and excessive stress is that, because of the stigma attached to talking about them openly, people often feel alone and increasingly self-isolated. “This becomes a vicious circle as sufferers begin to feel as though they are alone, misunderstood, and don’t matter to others, which only heightens their feelings of depression.”

As such, one of the best methods of helping someone struggling with their mental health is to create open and safe spaces for people to discuss their emotional states without the fear of judgement. A strong example of this in the workplace is the provision of employee assistance and wellness programmes which cover a range of psychosocial needs, grant employees access to professional mental health practitioners and equip employees with a range of tools to help them better understand their overall health, defined by the World Health Organisation as the presence of physical, mental, and social wellbeing and not just the absence of disease or infirmity.

How your financial health and mental health are interlinked

Poor financial health can feel like an unending weight on one’s shoulders. Dr Magwegwe says, “Being in a constant state of high stress and anxiety about finances increases the circulation of chemicals such as cortisol and adrenaline in the body that, over time, weaken the body’s immune system and make us more susceptible to both physical and mental illness.”

With money playing a central role in our ability to function well in society, being in poor financial health, primarily due to over-indebtedness is one of the main stressors South Africans face today. For example, Dr Magwegwe explains, many credit-active South Africans are struggling to keep up with their debt repayments. According to the National Credit Regulator, just over 10 million (38.4%) of the 26 million credit-active consumers fall into this category. Multitudes of academic studies have established a direct link between mental ill health such as depression and consumer over-indebtedness.

Having to choose between being able to pay your bills and access to adequate healthcare is a choice too many South Africans must make because the majority of South Africans have no medical aid. Only 8.9 million South Africans, a little over 15% of the population, have medical aid. In a bid to help people who find themselves facing this problem, financial services companies like Sanlam have launched primary health insurance products that act as a buffer for those who may not be able to afford medical aid. Primary health insurance products offer quality and affordable healthcare, especially to employees earning less than R20 000 per month who typically cannot afford medical aid.

Finding a way to cope

One of the major difficulties in dealing with depression, high anxiety and stress is that the short-term coping mechanisms which many adopt are bad for us. These can come in the form of excessive drinking and smoking, inadequate sleep, poor eating habits, a lack of exercise, gambling, and excessive social media use.

On an individual level Dr Magwegwe suggests having firm boundaries, regular exercise, practising mindfulness, getting adequate sleep, and adopting better eating habits as a good place to start in trying to alleviate mental ill health. More importantly, it is crucial that people seek professional help through their employers or through free services provided by organisations such as the South African Depression and Anxiety Group. Also, seeking help from financial advisers and coaches to improve financial health goes a long way to reducing the burden of financial stress.

On a broader scale he concludes by saying, “We must make it safe for people to be vulnerable and speak about their emotions both at the workplace and at home. If we destigmatise mental ill health, we will begin to see much better mental health-seeking behaviours. What will it take for a disclosure of mental ill health to be treated in the same way as a disclosure of high blood pressure or diabetes?”

Sanlam Life Insurance is a licensed financial service provider.
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