Op-ed: Psychosocial support during times of unrest and other trauma

South Africans are suffering from severe psychosocial stress.
Underlying psychosocial problems, which were contained under normal circumstances, have started to surface during the pandemic. (Photo: Freepik)

South Africa is currently experiencing what is probably one of its most stressful periods in recent history. As part of the global village, along with the rest of the world, we are experiencing an ongoing pandemic, the likes of which has not been seen for over 100 years. This has led to periods of lockdown, social isolation and the trauma of losing loved ones, as well as the fear and uncertainty of oneself or someone close to us becoming a casualty of this unpredictable disease.

As a country, South Africa is facing numerous challenges that have been exacerbated by this pandemic. Even before COVID-19, economic challenges, such as poor economic growth and high unemployment, were putting a large part of our population under severe psycho-social stress. The lockdowns came at a very difficult time in our country’s history. Many more people lost their jobs and stress levels increased dramatically.

Through millennia, human beings have always found comfort and support in one another. Support of family members and friends make life more bearable and helps one keep difficulties in perspective.  However, lockdown restrictions forced many people to work from home, disrupting individuals’ normal support systems. Daily routines have been turned upside down and changes affecting the daily lives of millions have become the norm. People have fewer opportunities to share the problems affecting their daily lives, with many withdrawing from friends and family to focus only on work. Working hours have increased and the boundaries between work and home life have blurred. This has led to many cases of burnout and depression.

Underlying issues coming to the fore

Underlying psychosocial problems, which were contained under normal circumstances, started to surface. Families as a whole have become very stressed and marital difficulties have become more commonplace. In fact, stress levels have increased exponentially in many South African families since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The recent riots and looting in certain provinces may be seen as symptoms of the underlying stress and frustrations in South African society. Joblessness, poverty, isolation frustration, hopelessness and a lack of family support are all possible contributors to the recent spate of unrest.

Surviving stressful times

The question can rightly be asked what the solutions are to these complex problems. How can one get the psycho-social support needed to survive these stressful times?

On an individual, level there is a lot that one can do to make life more bearable under the current circumstances.

  • Firstly, do everything you can to break your isolation. Make a point of contacting family, friends and even colleagues regularly. Rekindle old friendships and make new ones. Visit them if possible, while maintaining social distancing. Also use technology to keep in touch and share your experiences with them and support them.
  • If you have not visited your psychologist or psychiatrist for a while, maybe now is the time to do so. Do not wait until you are in a crisis before you do.
  • If you do not have a psychologist, contact your GP or your nearest Life Mental Health unit for guidance to find psycho-social support or a mental health specialist.
  • Try to see your colleagues at least once a month to share experiences and support each other.
  • If you work from home, define your working hours clearly and stick to them. Move away from your workstation after hours and do not be tempted to work when you are officially on down time. Remember, you are much more than just an employee. If you are a manager, also remember that your employees have other roles to fulfil as well. Their mental health is important to keep them productive.
  • Remember, isolation is your enemy when feeling hopeless or in despair. Fight it by taking deliberate and concrete action to break the loneliness. Break your routine. Get out of your home over weekends. Go to the gym or go for a walk. Take the children to ride their bikes. Have a picnic. Join a club or hobby group. However, remember to practice the necessary safety precautions.
  • Use all the psychosocial support systems at your disposal to keep in contact with others and to maintain a healthy sense of being during these trying times.

Dr du Toit has a Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and is a registered Clinical Psychologist based at Life Poortview.  He has more than 25 years’ experience in his profession. He has treated a variety of patients in different contexts in private practice and served as leader of various multidisciplinary mental health teams in the mental health field. He has extensive experience in the treatment of the whole spectrum of psychological problems and disorders, including adults, couples and children. – Health-e News

Dr JD du Toit, Ph.D is a clinical psychologist at Life Poortview


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