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Address by H.E. Paul Mashatile, Deputy President of the Republic of South Africa, during the closing session of the South African Mental Health Conference

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Session Chairperson, Director-General of the Department of Health, Dr Sandile Buthelezi;

Deputy Minister of Health, Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo;

MECs for Health present;

Provincial Heads of Health present;

Chairperson of the Ministerial Advisory Committee on Mental Health, Professor Solomon Tshimong Rataemane and Members of the Ministerial Advisory Committee;

Conference Chairperson, Professor Olive Shisana;

Researchers and students who have presented papers in this conference;

Mental Health Care Practitioners, mental health care users and representatives of civil society organisations;

All senior government officials present;

Esteemed delegates,

I am honoured to address you during this final session of the 2023 Mental Health Conference, which is appropriately themed, "Join the movement - time to talk about mental health".

As experts in the field, all of you are aware of and undoubtedly concerned about the rise in mental health cases in South Africa.  More concerning is that only 27% of our fellow compatriots who suffer from mental illness receive treatment. The rest do not.

There also exists a deficit in our society’s understanding of mental health, causes of illness and treatment. This leads to stereotyping those who suffer from mental health illness and obstructs the human solidarity necessary for us to become each other’s keepers.

The imperative to construct a people-centred society obliges us to fight this stereotype. This is even more urgent given the prevalence of social factors contributing to and exacerbating mental health cases.  These include crime, violence, substance abuse, historical trauma, unemployment, poverty, and disease.

 We saw this during the COVID-19 pandemic. The psychological impact of the restrictions coupled with economic hardships also saw an increase in mental health cases, including widespread depression and anxiety, particularly among the youth.

On the other hand, those who suffer from mental health illnesses are most vulnerable to HIV, TB, and Sexually Transmitted Infections. In addition to the fact that we must strengthen all aspects of social policy which focus on the well-being of the population especially the weak and vulnerable, the National Strategic Plan (NSP) for HIV, TB, and STIs for 2023–2028, which we launched on World TB Day, March 24, priorities people with mental health illness.

As most of you will know, the NSP seeks to:

· break down barriers to achieving HIV, TB and STIs solutions;

· maximise equitable and equal access to HIV, TB and STIs services and solutions;

· build resilient systems for HIV, TB and STIs that are integrated into systems for health, social protection, and pandemic response, and;

· fully resource and sustain an efficient NSP led by revitalised, inclusive, and accountable institutions.

In addition to the NSP, our country’s newly approved Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategy for the period 2023–2030 contains critical mental health promotion interventions which include mental health promotion, prevention of mental health illness, and improvements in mental health service delivery platforms, including information management and governance.

The successful implementation of the NSP and the Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategy will depend on the integration of mental health services and support to community-based and facility-based interventions and programmes. This is yet another reason why we need to confront the social stereotype about mental illness because our noble efforts as outlined in the NSP’s will come to nought if we do not confront and defeat stereotypes.

Amongst other things, we should intervene practically in a civic education campaign about all matters with which the NSP is concerned, including mental health. The campaign should aim to de-stigmatise mental illness and emphasise the importance of early detection, treatment and support. By changing the narrative on mental illness, it is possible to make it more comfortable for individuals to seek help. 

We should heed the advise of the recently launched 2022 World Health Organisation’s World Health Report, which proposes a three-pillared approach to improved mental health.

The first is the need to give greater value to mental health, starting with ourselves. This involves the need to adhere to good sleeping patterns, a healthy diet, and personal fitness regimes. The second is the need to promote mental health and prevent mental illness in our communities through inter-sectoral collaboration. The third is the continuous improvement of our mental health services, both in the public and private sectors.

In this regard, we should bear in mind that when we help someone, we increase their chance to contribute to making society a better place for all, including ourselves.  Motho Ke Motho Ka Batho Babang.

We should engage with the media, academia, the religious community, traditional leaders, trade unions, industry bodies and the entity of civil society to help to raise public awareness and understanding of mental illness.

We should also invest sufficient human and financial resources in the health system to secure access to quality health care by greater numbers of people regardless of their income or social status. Similarly, we should invest in and resource community health centres, therapy and support groups.

Undoubtedly, the realisation of these outcomes will require collaborative efforts between the government and the private sector. 

Policy processes must also be undertaken to address the fragmentation and underfunding of the mental health care system. One such policy matter is the need to agree on Universal Health Coverage (of mental illness) by means of South Africa's National Health Insurance.

In conclusion, we are pleased to learn that your conference has deliberated on practical ideas intended to help to close the gap in mental health care in areas such as access and affordability.

We would like to thank Minister Joe Phaahla and his team, and the scientific committee led by Professor Olive Shisana for putting together this well-thought-out programme.

This conference has provided an important and much-needed platform for dialogue, and the policy framework and strategy which will guide our implementation efforts.

Let us work towards establishing an environment which promotes mental health care, resources, and a culture of open communication and compassion.

I thank you.