Prozac for the nation?

2008-09-05 00:00

What in life makes you happy?

Nothing, say a staggering number of South Africans.

Two recent surveys paint a gloomy picture of the national psyche, but there are seeds of hope.

The organisation FutureFact conducts an annual national survey to get an idea of what inspires and motivates South Africans.

In one of the questions in the 2007 survey, released recently, 2 500 people from across the country were asked what they feel about the statement that “Nothing in life makes me happy”.

Of the respondents in LSM4 (Living Standards Measures, with the poorest starting at LSM1), 55% agreed with this statement. For LSM5, 43% agreed, and the percentages gradually decrease to the 22% of LSM10.

The younger people are, the more difficult they find it to be happy.

Altogether, 41% of respondents aged between 16 and 24 agreed with “Nothing in life makes me happy”. This also applied to 40% of people between 25 and 34 years, 38% of those between 35 and 49, and 30% of over-fifties.

The percentages of the different groups agreeing with the statement “I often feel depressed” range from 65% for LSM4 to 33% for LSM10.

In a TNS Research Surveys poll, conducted among 2 000 adults in metropolitan areas in June, only 49% of respondents agreed with the statement “I feel positive about South Africa and its future”. In February, 60% agreed.

The research report cites increasing concern about the economy, spiralling food and fuel prices, rising interest rates, xenophobic violence and the volatile situation in Zimbabwe. Other factors included concern about the national power supply and the controversy surrounding highly placed personalities like national police commissioner Jackie Selebi and Cape Judge President John Hlophe.

Debbie Milne, the researcher who collated the social part of the FutureFact results, believes depression is a key factor that leads to other problems like crime.

She lists a number of other factors responsible for the high depression rate, including South Africa’s turbulent and violent history, Aids (many people have lost loved ones) and poverty.

“Crime is at a tipping point for the country in terms of the nation’s sense of security and confidence in the future.”

However, says Cassey Amoore of the SA Depression and Anxiety Group (Sadag), all these factors do not cause depression, but they do tend to increase depression in people prone to it.

Both Sadag and LifeLine have reported an increase in calls for help over the last few weeks.

Because mental health is so under-resourced in South Africa, says Amoore, the freshest statistics available are from the SA Stress and Health (Sash) study conducted between 2002 and 2004, released last year. It finds the prevalence of psychiatric disorders to be high, with anxiety and major depressive disorders among the most common.

“There have been high rates of exposure to psychological trauma in the South African population,” says Amoore

The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that by 2020, depression will be the second leading cause of death in the world, Milne says. And in the developing world, the WHO believes it could be “the most debilitating affliction” by 2020. The leading cause of death today is ischaemic heart disease.

Milne says research has shown that young adult males externalise their depression. Significantly, most criminal offenders are young adult males. Many crimes are linked to drug and alcohol abuse, which is often the result of depression. “Depression leads to various social ills. There is a whole interwoven thing happening that we are not unpacking.”

Therefore, Milne believes, state-funded treatment for depression is needed and should be prioritised.

The Sash study states that treatment rates are low across all mental disorders.

Sadag runs support groups for depressed people even in the deep rural areas, says Amoore.

This, says Milne, is an example of how “we can indeed make a difference … We feel overwhelmed with the enormity of the social ills but we are not passive participants ... The reason we have become apathetic is that we have lost belief that we can make a difference”.

Social capital, which refers to connections within and between social networks, is a major factor that could bring some light in the midst of all the doom and gloom.

The FutureFact study shows an increase in memberships of groups.

It has been proven that societies with high levels of social capital promote democracy, a sound economy and business environment, social welfare and consumerism, Milne says.

Neighbourhoods with highly functional community police forums, for instance, have less crime.

The great extent of identity cohesion in South Africa is heartening, she says.

Respondents were given a number of options with which to identify themselves.

More than half described themselves as South African and a quarter as African, while 10% chose to be identified by their race. Another cohesive factor is language, with the majority of respondents accepting English as the lingua franca.

Milne talks about the “halo effect” of the 2010 Soccer World Cup. Eighty-two percent of respondents believe it will improve the lives of many people in the country and 71% say it is likely to improve their own lives and circumstances.

The results indicate considerable class mobility. In the United States, it takes an estimated four generations for people to move from poverty to average income. In South Africa, this seems to happen within one generation.

South Africans seem to be more positive about the long term, believing their children will have a better life than themselves, says Milne.

The statement “all South Africans should take responsibility for addressing crime in their communities” found resonance with 92% of respondents, which indicates people realise they cannot depend on government alone, she says.

Many interventions start on a small scale. Milne points out the now quite powerful Treatment Action Campaign was started with six people.

“One neighbour approaching another neighbour approaching a third neighbour can make a difference.

“An individual can help his domestic worker’s child, for instance.

“We need to start imagining what society could be, without the fences and the fears and the anxiety.” — Sapa.

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