MORE than three million South African children may have undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder because of seeing crime, violence and trauma around them, an expert says.
Two million adults were also at risk, according to Eugene Allers, an eminent psychiatrist and past president of the South African Society of Psychiatrists, who has based his conclusions on several recent studies.
Post-traumatic stress disorder arises from seeing or experiencing traumatic events, including rape, murder or even vehicle accidents.
People with this condition re-experience the shock in dreams and in waking episodes. They may avoid activities reminiscent of the trauma, and experience hyper-vigilance and irritability. Studies have found almost half of people with this disorder also experienced depression.
South Africans were particularly prone to mental illness because of the violence and displacement in the country's political past, Allers said.
Children in townships and other poor areas were particularly vulnerable to traumatic events.
They grow up in harsh circumstances ... often left alone. By a conservative estimate, 60% of South Africa's 20 million under-19s had seen a traumatic event.
Those with post-traumatic stress who reacted with agitation, particularly boys, were also more likely themselves to be violent, risking a perpetuating cycle.
Stress disorders common on Cape Flats
"You can just think of what will happen when (the children) are adults," Allers said. "It's obviously a spiralling problem. Last year, the South African Stress and Health Study found higher levels of mental illness in the Western Cape than in any other province barring the Free State.
More than one in five people in the Western Cape had a stress or anxiety disorder, and twice as many would do so over their lifetime.
Allers attributed the higher rates to the steep numbers of displaced persons, poverty, and assorted struggling communities thrown together in areas like the Cape Flats.
The South African Depression and Anxiety Group's project manager, Janine Shamos, said South Africa faced a critical shortage of mental health resources.
With only 284 psychiatrists in the country, most of them in urban areas, people in poorer rural areas often had to drive hours for care they couldn't always afford.
"If you're not in a big city and you don't have medical aid, you're pretty much stuck." The South African Depression and Anxiety Group runs toll-free suicide and substance abuse lines. Shamos said up to 250 people a day called in for counselling, and the call volume had been increasing and diversifying in recent years.