The South African Depression and Anxiety Support Group was founded in 1995 by Zane Wilson, originally as a means of offering support to the many South Africans suffering from Panic Disorders. The Group has since been expanded to encompass Social Phobia, Generalised Anxiety Disorder and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder. The Group was further expanded in February 1998 with the inclusion of Depression into the portfolio of support services offered. The Depression and Anxiety Support Group not only represents the first truly national organisation dedicated to providing support for sufferers of the various mental illnesses, but is also the first private initiative to be funded and supported by the co-operation of 19 pharmaceutical companies. Collectively, they represent the largest ever private Mental Health initiative to be undertaken in South Africa.
At present, the group’s membership stands at over 6500, which is constantly on the increase as a result of the group’s intensive marketing and publicity campaigns. Members include sufferers of the various disorders as well as family and friends of those directly affected by the diseases. Membership has been further expanded to include Health Care Professionals – Psychiatrists, Psychologists, Doctors, Nurses and social workers – and the general public. A dynamic Advisory Board comprised of 11 professionals, including Psychiatrists, General Practitioners and Psychologists oversees and provides guidelines and recommendations for the group’s activities. Chairing the Advisory Board is Professor Michael Berk, head of Psychiatry at the University of the Witwatersrand Medical School. The group is the only African representative of GAMIAN (The Global Alliance of Mental Illness Advocacy Networks), and is a founder member of the International Patients Federation.
The group functions on a non-profit basis, and is dedicated to fulfilling several obligations to the victims of the illness and the community itself. It is only through education that the very destructive stigma and unfair discrimination ascribed to sufferers of mental illnesses can be eliminated: the education of patients (and their friends and family), as well as health professionals and the general public thus exists as one of the most important functions of the group. The organisation has made available educational material in the way of videos, audio tapes, publications (printed in English, Sotho and Zulu) as well as a quarterly newsletter circulated to all members. Through the group’s Outreach Programme, talks have been presented at schools, tertiary institutions and prisons. Major inroads have been made into creating greater awareness of the group in previously disadvantaged areas. A new programme to address the disturbing reality of adolescent suicide and create awareness regarding the help and support resources available for depression has been launched and is actively presented at schools by Support Group staff. Workshops and conferences are regularly convened, with guest speakers addressing support groups and audiences throughout the country. Other functions include the fostering of self-help for patients and families, improving access to care and the canvassing for further research into Mental Illness.
Active networks have enabled mutual partnerships with several public organisations, allowing for greater exposure through active networking. The first-ever support group for Prison inmates suffering from depression and anxiety disorders was recently inaugurated at the Mogwase Prison. Therry Nhlapo, the group’s Outreach Co-ordinator, has been actively involved in the establishment of support groups in townships and rural areas around the country. Bearing in mind the cultural diversity of the South African population, it is a most challenging task to organise support groups and treatment programmes that meet with approval from the broadest possible range of communities. The importance of cultural considerations is recognised in the group’s activities. Traditional healers and spiritual advisors are regularly invited to meetings, where they are given the opportunity to interact with doctors, and provide valuable comment on treatment practices. Such meetings have been very successful, and have fostered a spirit of co-operation between traditional healers and the more conventional western approaches to healing. Prior to opening support groups in new areas, Doctors from the region are introduced to the group’s activities through CME’s sponsored by the various pharmaceutical companies.
During May and June, the group ran an extensive programme of 31 meetings for both health care professionals and the public throughout South Africa, as far afield as Mitchells Plain, Umtata, Harrismith, Qwa-Qwa, Klerksdorp, Potchefstroom, Port Elizabeth, Pinetown and St. Jeffreys Bay. This is the first time that an undertaking of this size and nature has been put together and set in place for the benefit of mental health communities across the country. A workshop for regional co-ordinators was convened in April, and was attended by over 130 counselors and support group co-ordinators from throughout South Africa. Highlights from the recent annual congress of the Anxiety Disorders Association of America held in Boston were presented, including details of new advances in treatment (both pharmacological and psychological treatment interventions) and the management of Anxiety Disorders.
Serving as a representative body for more than 10% of South Africans suffering from depressive disorders, the group is well empowered to advocate further research into treatment for the diseases. An extensive media campaign has been in place for some time already. The campaign is rapidly gaining momentum following the inclusion of Depression into the group’s portfolio. Reports and articles have appeared in major magazines and newspapers, highlighting not only the group’s activities, but the symptoms and treatment as well.
In terms of support services offered, the group co-ordinates an extensive network of 84 support groups around the country. Most groups are run by people intimately exposed to either Depression, Anxiety or both, either having recovered from the illnesses or having experienced the diseases within their family setting. The Johannesburg office is the group’s control centre and telephone counseling base. Telephonic counseling is available between 8 am and 8 pm Mondays to Saturdays, and is accessible to all on the toll-free Pfizer helpline telephone numbers. Telephone counselors have been extensively trained in counseling skills, and consumer queries. Information on self-help strategies and interventions is also provided. Aside from offering a confidential counseling and support service, they are able to refer callers to Psychiatrists, Psychologists, General Practitioners and other Mental Health Professionals specialising in the treatment of mental illness. All calls are completely confidential. An extensive library of information is maintained, and free brochures, pamphlets and fact sheets are distributed on request. A mail-order service for the most current books and audio tapes relating to Depression and Anxiety is available.
The problem of phobias in its many forms and pathologies has been recognised and the group has initiated the training of Phobic Aides. Phobic Aides offer a support service for phobia sufferers, allowing them to slowly overcome their fears thanks to clearly defined hierarchys, support, encouragement and attentiveness on the part of the Phobic Aide. Although the process of removing a phobia whether it be a fear of bridges, supermarkets or driving can last for between one and six months, the services of Phobic Aides are offered at no charge to those in need.
A campaign targeting and highlighting the prevalence of depression in the workplace is being implemented – the rate of depression in the workplace is quite alarming, with studies in America showing that 46% of staff experience absenteeism and reduced productivity because of depression. Depression in this context is still met with much negative discrimination and victimisation.