Since the inception of democracy, our country was traumatized last year with the announcement that from March to December 2016, 94 vulnerable mentally ill patients died mainly due to neglect and poor management. This was as a result of the patients being moved from Life Esidimeni facilities to unlicensed and poorly managed NGO’s in Gauteng. UKZN’s Head of Psychiatry, Professor Bonginkosi Chiliza, hosted an event by KZN Health MEC Dr Sibongiseni Dhlomo who presented on KZN’s response to this tragedy.

The much anticipated report from UKZN’s former Vice-Chancellor and Health ombudsman, Professor Malegapuru Makgoba, painted a grim picture of community facilities which were neither ready nor equipped to take patients with chronic psychiatric illnesses. Following a brief survey, Makgoba found that pneumonia, followed by uncontrolled seizures, was the most common cause of death of the patients. Chilling to the core of one’s humanity was Makgoba’s statement, ‘No guns-94+ deaths and still counting.’

Makgoba’s report further stated that the decision taken by the Gauteng Department of Health to terminate and relocate/transfer patients from Life Esidimeni centres precipitously was fundamentally flawed, irrational, unwise and inhumane. Following the announcement, Gauteng MEC Qedani Mahlangu, resigned and the Department assured loved ones of the deceased that they will rectify the situation.

Dhlomo apologized for the tragedy stating that mental health is a neglected area globally and more resources are required to ensure the efficient deinstitutionalisation of mental health patients. ‘What happened in Gauteng is a tragedy to all of us and I am apologizing on behalf of our Department. It is something that we are not proud of. Deinstitutionalisation of patients must be done systematically, with adequate provision made for community services.’ Health MEC also mentioned that he will rely on UKZN’s Chiliza to advise him on how to improve the situation in KZN.

Chiliza responded, ‘What is striking to us as psychiatrists is that we were informed that the Gauteng Health MEC did not take the advice of the clinicians. How then do we advise on human rights abuses and ensure that we work together to find a solution?’ Dhlomo went on to explain that as a medical doctor, he is guided by the ethics of the profession regulated by the Health Professions Council of South Africa. He said, ‘Accountability to our professional body is key to ensure that this area is never neglected again.’

UKZN’s Dr Suvira Ramlal commented on the situation of mental healthcare in KZN, ‘There is a crisis when it comes to caring for psychiatric patients. There are limited beds and other resources. We are sitting on a potential time bomb and we need to unblock the crisis.’

Dhlomo’s parting words were that we need to focus on resourcing the NGO’s so that we can deinstitutionalise our mental health patients ensuring their successful reintegration into society. He called on the private sector to assist with funding and for UKZN psychiatrists to advise him on essential drugs that would assist in the patient’s rehabilitation.