South Africa’s already strained mental healthcare services now face increased numbers of patients relapsing on treatment along with rising new cases due to the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic, while many psychiatric patients are at higher risk for COVID-19 due to co-morbid diseases and difficulties in following preventative measures such as mask wearing and physical distancing.

In a statement released today, the South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP) urged public and private healthcare providers to maintain the availability of beds for psychiatric patients as they work to build a large hospital bed network to cope with the disease outbreak.

In light of the current situation SASOP recommends a number of steps that should be taken by health authorities and mental health care providers during this pandemic:

  1. 1)  Heads of health establishments, healthcare providers, multidisciplinary mental health specialists and informal caregivers should continue to render mental health care services throughout the pandemic, as is their duty.
  2. 2)  Psychiatric patients infected with or suspected of having COVID-19 and needing high care or intensive care (eg, ventilation) should be transferred to a medical facility without delay.
  3. 3)  In anticipation of more psychiatric patients acquiring COVID-19 and/or relapsing from pandemic-associated stress, the capacity to accommodate psychiatric patients during this pandemic should be attended to with urgency and immediately.
  4. 4)  The opening up of more psychiatric beds could be facilitated through a number of means including:
    • Fast-track the licensing applications of NGOs that can accommodate users with profound and severe intellectual disability in order to free up acute or specialist psychiatric beds.
    • Re-procurement of contracted beds at larger long-term facilities that can house users with complex mental illnesses with risk factors that cannot be contained in the community.
    • Immediate inspection of all hospital facilities to search for under-utilised wards (eg, TB wards that are no longer needed as more and more patients respond favourably to ARVs).
    • Along with infrastructure improvement, more psychiatric staff should be pre-emptively hired to help current staff cope with the expected influx.
    • Any decision to close an acute psychiatric ward should not be haphazard as this may lead to creation of a COVID-19 ward which lies unused. Rather, one hospital within a region should become a near-complete COVID-19 hospital, accepting COVID-19 patients from nearby hospitals so that other non-COVID-19 conditions can continue to be treated.
    • Government must engage the private sector to assist in addressing any shortfalls in hospital bed capacity. We chat to the president of the South African Society of Psychiatrists about their plight to urge hospitals no to use beds allocated to psychiatric patients for non-psychiatric patients during this crisis – we find out why…

      Prof. Bonga Chiliza joins us on the line…