When it comes to mental healthcare, at the best of times, South Africa is characterized by high needs and a very low capacity to respond, especially for people in disadvantaged communities. COVID-19 has not just brought challenges to our physical health and economic security; it is wreaking havoc with our general sense of well-being, exposing the fault-lines in our emotional resilience and our abilities to properly tend to our mental health. The enforced period of hard lockdown cut us off from many of our usual coping mechanisms. Many people had to confront substance use and abuse issues without any support. There was no escape from dysfunctional, even violent dynamics in our family relationships. Help has been hard to come by when the country’s fragile healthcare resources have all been acutely focused on mitigating the threats of the novel coronavirus.
As the COVID-19 response shut down most options for access to mental health care services in South Africa, Woodstock’s Counselling Hub recognized the critical need to still be available to its low-income community. The Counselling Hub is an initiative of the SACAP Foundation, a non-profit organisation working towards providing accessible affordable mental health services, and the KK Educational Fund (KKEF). “The crisis fired up our entrepreneurial spirit,” says Romi Kaplan, co-founder of the Counselling Hub. “We were determined not to separate our clients from their counsellors at such a stressful time, and so we managed to pivot, from the very first week of lockdown, to a tele-counselling service. The first week of March we had to call all the clients to inform them that we had to suspend face-to-face sessions and would be instilling an alternative to provide sessions to them via telephone and virtual platforms. It was important to work with our counsellors, to get their agreement and also ensure they were comfortable with working in this new way. We had to devise a system whereby counsellors would be able to recharge with airtime and data that we provided. We had to divert all calls from the main office to a cellphone at one of our houses. Immediately, we engaged an expert in tele-counselling to facilitate a training session via Zoom so that we could all master the basics of this new way of delivering mental health services. Our model previously was to offer professional services at the affordable rate of R50 per session, but we needed to innovate here too as clients lost their sources of income. In some cases, the only way to ensure continuity of treatment has been for our counsellors to make the calls. We have thus transformed to being donation-based through our website. At this time of crisis, the importance of the Counselling Hub’s work has been widely recognized and we are deeply grateful to the volunteer counsellors who have come on board and enabled us to actually grow our reach in Cape Town’s vulnerable communities.”
Every day at the Counselling Hub, more than 30 volunteer counsellors are delivering services through innovative tele-counselling to over 110 patients. Since its start up in 2019, the Counselling Hub has played an essential role in facilitating referrals to specific mental health services. Covid-19 lockdown brought many mental health issues in the family context to light with parents becoming aware of their teens’ eating disorders and adults reckoning for the first time with their substance issues or their lack of resilience when it comes to financial uncertainty.
Counselling Hub co-ordinator, Shifra Jacobson says, “The Counselling Hub has effectively taken its ethos to enhance access to quality mental health services online because the continuity of mental health care services in South Africa should be a priority right now. Covid-19 has ramped up fear, uncertainty, depression, sadness and anxiety. As infections and deaths continue to rise, grief is going to become a challenge for many more people. As economic recession deepens and job losses increase, mental health issues are going to be paramount. We must find the innovative ways, not just to continue, but to amplify support and care.”
For the founders of the Counselling Hub, Covid-19 is heightening their vision of a South Africa where there is universal, quality, affordable and well-developed mental health services.
Lance Katz from the SACAP Foundation says, “The crisis intensifies the harsh realities that most South Africans experience. Never underestimate the benefits of a non-judgmental, listening ear. Basic mental health care tools are actually highly effective in assisting clients in coping with daily challenges and can help them get through a highly traumatic event such as Covid-19. The Counselling Hub’s tele-counselling services are providing friendly meeting points for clients who would otherwise be left in the lurch. Let’s use Covid-19 to broaden access to mental healthcare and make sure that we boost the functional wellbeing of our South African society.”
The global pandemic is delivering many teaching and learning moments, but the one lesson that should stand out is how critical sound mental health is to our capacity to withstand hardship, keep focused on solutions and find the resilience in our individual characters to come out the other side stronger, hopefully bringing our loved ones with us. People from all walks of life have this capacity, or not. Sometimes, all it takes is a helping hand, or a listening ear, to wake us up to our potential to not just get through the tough times, but to achieve a greater level of self-knowledge and learn life skills that change us for the better. Sometimes that access to mental health care is simply about survival. You can support the Counselling Hub as it continues to deliver mental health care services during Covid-19 at https://counsellinghub.org.za/donate/