Let’s join Miss SA’s mental illness mission

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Miss SA Shudufhadzo Musida. Picture: Lerato Maduna
Miss SA Shudufhadzo Musida. Picture: Lerato Maduna

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It has been a few weeks since Shudufhadzo Musida was crowned Miss SA. Her win could not have come at a better time, with the dark cloud of Covid-19 engulfing the country.

As part of her social responsibility during her tenure, Musida says her prime focus will be on mental health, an issue exacerbated by the magnitude of job losses – and the effects of prolonged isolation – during this year’s lockdown.

She says mental illness cannot be taken lightly, yet people are generally reluctant to talk openly about their psychological challenges for fear of social stigma. She aims to put mental health high on the country’s agenda.

As the end of the year approaches, reflections on 2020 will be dominated by the devastating impact that the pandemic has had on most of us. Livelihoods have been lost, loved ones have died, dreams have been shattered and new year resolutions are unfulfilled.

Read: Movember focuses on the mental health of men

Looking at the current situation in our country, my heart goes out to those tertiary institution graduates who will be seeking in-service training, internships and employment in the year ahead.

No one has prepared these youngsters for the reality that their post-study prospects will present a monumental challenge, given the impact of the lockdown on an already fragile economy.

Expectations and ambitions of conquering the world and succeeding in a career will be high, but there will be many pitfalls.

About 65% of South Africans experienced heightened stress during the lockdown, mostly caused by financial insecurity, isolation and anxiety about the future.

Already, it is not uncommon to see graduates standing at traffic intersections, dressed in their graduation gowns and holding signboards asking for employment. This is an experience they never imagined having to endure. Do we ever pause to empathise with what they are going through?

I myself was once one such graduate, who dreamed that the world would be my oyster when I completed my studies. I imagined getting a well-paid job, driving a nice car and preparing to start a family.

As fate would have it, those aspirations came to nothing. Two years passed and still no internship or voluntary work appeared on my horizon.

I felt dejected and despondent. Never had it occurred to me that finding employment would be such a thorny road.

Among my peers, I felt like an outcast. Hope was the only thing that kept me alive. Fortunately, I had a good family support structure, and I continued to receive encouragement.

Read: Miss SA: The public has spoken

But what about the many thousands of others, those whose parents invested their life savings in their children’s tertiary education in the hope of their establishment as not only breadwinners and therefore able to help support the family, but proud graduates embarking on illustrious careers?

According to a survey conducted by the SA Depression and Anxiety Group, about 65% of South Africans experienced heightened stress during the lockdown, mostly caused by financial insecurity, isolation and anxiety about the future.

Mental illness should be given the urgent attention it deserves.

The mental health organisation surveyed 1 214 individuals about their state of mental health during the first few weeks of the lockdown.

Of the participants, about 12% said they were feeling suicidal. Even before the virus struck, South Africa had an average daily tally of 23 suicides and 230 serious attempts. The Covid-19 pandemic and the effects of the lockdown may have increased those figures.

This emphasises the fact that mental illness should be given the urgent attention it deserves. If it is not taken seriously, it can be life-threatening to our young people. Now is the time for organisations to work together to tackle it before it claims many more lives.

While some fortunate graduates will be employed as interns, enabling them to gain workplace experience, the pitfalls they face after the expiry of their internship contracts will negatively affect their mental wellbeing. And since they are the country’s future workforce, the economic impact will be equally severe.

Most organisations now include a human resources department that refers employees to counselling for mental health issues.

These organisations should work closely with our reigning Miss SA. Musida should be supported in her endeavours, which will help restore people’s hope and positively reset minds for next year and beyond.

Mogotlane is a social commentator and public servant writing in his personal capacity


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