The Eastern Cape Department of Health has confirmed its staff are battling to deal with a huge increase in the number of mentally ill patients in the province, particularly among teenagers and young men.
A sharp rise in drug abuse in towns and villages was the main cause of the increase in patients, said provincial health spokesman Sizwe Kupelo.
Kupelo was speaking after a fight broke out among 24 mentally ill patients at Cecilia Makiwane Hospital (CMH) on Friday, which left six patients injured.
Kupelo said during the scuffle a ward was damaged, prompting doctors to close it down. Police and security guards had to be called to calm the fighting patients.
“We are battling with the influx of mental patients due to drugs. That’s a fact.
“The fight at CMH on Friday left many injured and about 10 patients will be transferred to other psychiatric institutions in Komani [Queenstown], Grahamstown and Fort Beaufort.”
The fight erupted a few weeks after a guard died from complications that arose from head injuries sustained in an attack by a psychiatric patient at Nompumelelo Hospital in Peddie last year.
“We are at the receiving end of these social ills as the department, and we are short staffed and don’t have enough beds for these patients,” said Kupelo.
The fight at CMH is believed to have been started by one of the patients.
In a normal situation, hospitals have to admit a mentally ill patient for 72 hours of observation, but provincial hospitals’ services are now stretched and they have to admit patients for two to three weeks before they can be assessed.
“After the observation period, normally some of the patients are taken home after their conditions have normalised.
“But this influx is worrisome. We have experienced similar pressure in Port Elizabeth.
“Our immediate strategy has been to manage all mental health beds so as to know our bed occupancy [rates].”
He said hospitals treating the mentally ill, such as Tower in Fort Beaufort, Fort England in Grahamstown, Donkin in Port Elizabeth and Komani in Komani, were always almost full. The Eastern Cape had 2800 hospital beds for mentally ill patients, with 900 of those in private institutions.
“Just recently police from Komani asked if we could admit an arrested person who was mentally challenged, and we said we could not, we don’t have space.”
Kupelo said substance abuse was the main cause of the increase in patients.
“We cannot beat about the bush and sweeten this – drugs are a problem and they are killing the future of our country.
“We need a stronger society to fight this. People must not expect the health department to fight this scourge on its own. These [drug users] are people who come from the communities, and the people who sell these drugs are known; why not report them to police?”
Drug abuse was no longer a problem found only in suburbs. Drug abuse had found its way into rural communities.
Kupelo said “armchair critics” were not needed. “We can’t be scientific about everything. We just need the communities to fight some things.
“You find these drugs in rural villages now, and mainly boys are the victims.
“This is a challenge for us all. We have seen how bad this is in Port Elizabeth, and it is going to continue if communities do not assist us to deal with the challenge.”
Kupelo said talks between the health and social development departments had begun in an attempt to mitigate the problem.