The Life Esidimeni tragedy, patient abuse and suicide by health professionals are among the issues pointing to a dire need for better management of public sector psychiatry.
This is the opinion of incoming South African Society of Psychiatrists president, Professor Bonga Chiliza, who has spoken out about the need for improvements in an area of health that has been neglected.
Now the newly-elected president of SASOP, Prof Chiliza said the deaths of 144 patients in the now-notorious Life Esidimeni tragedy; allegations of abuse and human rights violations at the Tower Psychiatric Hospital in the Eastern Cape and the suicide of UCT Health Sciences Dean Professor Bongani Mayosi all pointed to the need for the organisation to “rise and answer the call for advocating on behalf of mental health care users and our profession”.
Chiliza, who heads the Psychiatry Department of the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) Medical School and will serve as SASOP president until 2020, said the organisation would ramp up it’s lobbying for mental health care to be allocated an equitable share of the national health budget.
He said SASOP would also be doing more to encourage medical students to specialise in psychiatry, in order to grow the numbers of qualified professionals able to serve the country’s mental health care needs.
“Mental health conditions are often misunderstood, mismanaged and stigmatised, particularly for those who rely on the public health system for treatment. They are extremely vulnerable to abuse and SASOP as the professional body for psychiatrists must take the lead in ensuring better services to our people.
“We will live out the promise we made to society when we engaged in a social contract with our community as practising, professional psychiatrists,” he said.
Chiliza said SASOP was establishing a “robust Public Sector Executive Committee of senior psychiatrists in academia and government services” to guide its efforts to strengthen psychiatric care in the public health sector.
He said SASOP would continue its leading role in the National Mental Health Alliance of NGOs in the mental health care sector as a vehicle for advocacy on policy and budget issues affecting mental health care and the provision of professional psychiatry services in the public sector.
Outlining his vision for SASOP and its contribution to psychiatry, Chiliza said the organisation would also focus on renewing its leadership transformation efforts, strengthening the relationship between public and private sector psychiatry, and supporting early-career psychiatrists.
“We will re-energise our efforts to transform the leadership of SASOP and psychiatry in general. The leadership of SASOP will continue to transform until is aligned with the demographics of South Africa and is able to fully engage with issues that plague our country such as racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination,” he said.
Chiliza said that as a scarce resource, psychiatrists in the public and private sectors needed to work together, especially in preparing for the reorganisation of the health care system with the implementation of National Health Insurance (NHI).
“We are already piloting value-based care models in the private sector. There is no reason why these pilots cannot be performed in both private and state sectors,” he said.
On early-career psychiatry, he said he aimed to grow SASOP by focusing on young psychiatrists, registrars and medical officers, ensuring that young doctors had ample opportunity to do internships in the discipline and “fall in love with psychiatry”.
“We need to push harder for psychiatry to be truly recognised as a major discipline in undergraduate medical education,” he said.
Prof Chiliza said SASOP would look to increase the support it already offers to medical registrars in order to “facilitate a more equitable training platform for all registrars regardless of the university at which they are training”.
Support for early-career psychiatrists would also extend to assistance in dealing with professional practice issues such as billing, and mentorship for young psychiatrists and future academics.
An edited version of this story was published by Health24.