By Siphokazi Zama
With the third highest crime rate in the Eastern Cape, Grahamstown’s vulnerable people need all the support they can get. But it’s not only trauma counselling that Fort England Psychiatric Hospital offers to the community.
The hospital’s recently expanded outreach programme is making huge strides for the accessibility of mental health care. The outreach programme currently serves the Cacadu and Amathole Districts, comprising of six hospitals and four community clinics.
This has been done by increasing the frequency of hospital and clinic visits by specialist mental health care workers like psychologists and psychiatrists. According to Phin Van Tonder, the programme’s co-ordinator, the aim of the programme is to make mental health care more accessible to people. Previously, patients would have had to wait for months to get an appointment see the doctors at the hospital. But now with the outreach programme, patients can see a doctor every week, or every fortnight depending on the hospital or clinic where they are based. Furthermore, outpatients can now go to their local clinic or hospital to get their medication instead of coming to Fort England every time. This is especially helpful to the majority of patients who either live far away or cannot afford to get specialised help and medication from a private hospital.
According to Iain Reid, the Head of Psychology at Fort England, their outreach programme is the only way disadvantaged people from places such as Alexandria, Fort Beufort, Riebeeck East, and Alicedale can access psychological and psychiatric help. The programme has also been successful in getting more people to come and consult about their mental health. For example, at Settlers Day Hospital, the programme started with one doctor coming in once a week to now having three doctors coming every week because the need is so great. “The programme really does make a difference to the community otherwise there wouldn’t be such a demand for the service,” said Reid. “Despite the socio-economic challenges we face, I’m positive about what we’re doing.” At the local clinic level, the outreach programme has been instrumental in helping people become more aware of mental illnesses and their willingness to come and consult about their mental state. The outreach programme also offers other essential services such as trauma counselling in the community clinics.
Before the programme started the ratio for inpatients was greater than outpatients. Now there is a greater ratio of outpatients to inpatients. A specialist mental wellness course is taught to the outgoing patients and their families about mental health, the importance of medication, a support structure and looking after yourself. According to Van Tonder, the programme has helped with lessening the stigma attached to mental illness, particularly among high school children who do not want their peers to know they are getting psychological or psychiatric treatment.
Van Tonder said: “We encourage our patients to go out and mingle with the community. “We encourage them to teach [the community] about mental illness and clear the misconception people might have about mental illness and what people who have a mental illness are like.” The outreach programme also works with the Department of Education to test children with neurological problems. Recently they have started concentrating on substance abuse, as well as assisting NGO Child Welfare. There are also plans in progress to have lectures in the various hospitals to teach the doctors and nurses involved in the programme more about mental illness, in order to treat their patients more efficiently. Reid said: “There is always room for improvement within the programme. But what we are doing is greatly improving the lives of those who otherwise would have not had access to such services.”