Plight of intellectually disabled rape survivors

2011-10-13 00:00

“DO intellectually disabled rape survivors ­experience equality under South African law?” asked one of the speakers at the 13th annual World Mental Health symposium, held last week Thursday at Pietermaritzburg’s Townhill Hospital, in the ­run-up to World Mental Health Day on Monday.

Professor Anthony Pillay, a behavioural-medicine expert, said in his presentation on The Intellectually Disabled Rape Survivor vs The Court that while South African legislation does protect intellectually disabled adults, they still faced immense inequalities.

He analysed the legal approach to intellectually disabled rape survivors testifying in courts, and their ability to comprehend the implications of ­taking the court oath as well as the unfair emphasis placed on abstract term.

He mentioned that people who are intellectually disabled may experience secondary trauma by being obliged to be psychoanalysed before they can provide evidence to the court. “It could make them feel like they have done something wrong,” said ­Pillay, voicing that the courts’ approach is insensitive, and that a better understanding of people with this disability is needed.

“When people ask me about them lying in court, I say ‘lying is a higher-order cognitive function, and therefore more likely in those with higher levels of intelligence’.”

According to reports done by the World Health Organisation (WHO), 450 million people worldwide are affected by mental, behavioural or neurological difficulties. One in four people globally experience a mental-health condition, and an estimated 873 000 people commit suicide every year.

In 2010, it reported that the majority of people with mental or psychosocial disabilities are unable to access development or poverty-alleviation ­programmes, and 75% to 85% are unable to access mental-health care. Also, psychosocial and mental disabilities were associated with up to 90% of unemployment.

“Mental health is an invisible problem in ­international development, with mental and ­neurological disorders being the leading cause of disability and ill health globally,” said Emma Johnston.

Claire Hartshorne, who runs free bimonthly meetings for bipolar sufferers at Akeso Hospital in Woodhouse Road, Pietermaritzburg, said that “more and more people are recognising the disease [bipolar disorder] and are being diagnosed, but there are still a lot of people who are ignorant, and cultural factors plays a huge role. There needs to be more education about mental health.”

Sheryl Sol, a psychologist practising in Kloof, agreed and said: “I’ve had many schoolchildren phone me because they want to do projects on mental health, but people are still very uninformed. There is also a huge stigma still attached to mental illness.”

Many people still see mental health as a burden or curse.

Despite the great need, non-government organisations (NGOs) and governments are not sufficiently interested in mental health and financial aid focused on the “big three” ­communicable diseases: HIV/Aids, malaria and ­tuberculosis (TB), said ­Johnston. Also, the stigma around mental health restricts social pressure to affect government or individual action.

“Mental health is everybody’s responsibility,” said Dr Cliff Allwood, a specialist psychiatrist and former head of the department of psychiatry at Wits ­University, who had presented a talk on A Multidisciplinary Team Approach to the Treatment of Bipolar Disorder. “It is really underprioritised. It needs a lot more funding, and mental health needs to be made a priority.”

Other speakers at the symposium included Dr ­Alicia Portier, a specialist psychiatrist at Fort Napier hospital, who spoke about the benefits of omega 3 as a complementary or alternative medication for mental health disorders; Dr Simcha Mdaka, a ­clinical psychologist, who spoke on the importance of emotional intelligence and how improving it can benefit one’s life; Dr Jack Krysztofiak, who spoke on the neurobiology of depression and professor Graham Lindegger from the School of Psychology at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, who spoke on spirituality and depression. •

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