Mental health stigma persists in rural areas 

“Stigma creates shame and anxiety”- words of clinical psychologist, Hope Poopedi.

In the quiet corners of rural communities, mental health challenges often stay hidden and are concealed by stigma. Many people, especially rural individuals lack knowledge of mental illness. The stigma surrounding mental illness makes it difficult for people to acknowledge and get help for their mental health struggles.

Rural communities have distinct challenges with mental health. In some cases, traditional values hinder open discussions, leading to isolation and limited care access, fuelling the stigma cycle.

Anwen Mojela, a journalist and resident from Tzaneen, Limpopo, says that many people in rural areas are unaware of mental illnesses.

“There is a common misconception that it is all for attention. Mental illness is seen as a ‘white people’s illness’ in rural areas. Most parents believe that if you have clothes, a roof over your head and food, you shouldn’t be stressed. They often say that you are too young to be stressed.”

“I think that people do not really know about mental illness. If someone behaves in an unusual way, we say they are bewitched, since we know they were born mentally well. People do not have a way to deal with it. The tragic part is that clinics and hospitals record many suicides and attempted suicides.”

She further explains that people in urban areas are well-informed and more aware of situations. They can deal with different situations, and they know more about the symptoms, treatment and management of mental health. In rural areas, they are not, and those who are, turn a blind eye.

As a teenage boy growing up in the Free State, Tumelo Mofokeng, says that the lifestyle differences between rural areas and urban areas make it challenging for rural residents to accept mental illness. “There are many cultural stigmas in rural areas, and mental illness is not accepted. They often regard it as witchcraft.”

He continues to say that rural areas have people suffering from mental illnesses but cannot get help because of lack of resources and financial problems. “Most people don’t have the money to pay for therapy and stuff like that,” he said.

Adelaide Phasha, a young lady born and bred in Ga-Mphahlele in Limpopo states that the biggest problem facing people with mental health in rural areas is that they don’t have mental health care support.

“There are no organisations or institutions that support people with mental health issues. It’s a challenge for them to find help which may lead to an increase in suicides.”

She mentions that there are many reasons why mental health issues occur in rural areas, including a lack of job opportunities, a lack of better living standards, a lack of transportation, a lack of psychological support, and a lack of government clinics where social workers can provide mental health care.

Despite a lack of awareness about psychological illness in rural areas, there are some people who bravely acknowledge and seek support for their mental health challenges. Clinical psychologist, Hope Poopedi who works at a hospital in Limpopo explains that some people come to seek help. However, it is usually school learners who are taught about mental health at school.

Hope states that people with mental illness are still stigmatised in many rural areas, making it difficult to seek help and support.

“This stigma creates shame and anxiety and prevents people from seeking professional help. However, those who undergo on treatment default and relapse due to the shame and rejection they experience in society.”

She explains that patients with mental illnesses in rural areas also experience lots of discrimination.

The biggest barriers to getting mental health support in rural areas are that “most rural areas don’t have a clinic or hospital within proximity. The lack of resources makes it difficult to manage mental illnesses with psychotherapy and medications. Financial constraints are also a problem.”

The lack of awareness and education about mental health in rural areas contributes to misconceptions and stereotypes. This results in the prevailing belief that mental illness is a sign of weakness or a personal failing, rather than recognizing it as a medical condition that can affect anyone. Such beliefs can further isolate those suffering from mental health issues and discourage them from seeking help.

More campaigns on mental illness in rural areas will help, said Hope. She explains that outreach programs that enable easy access to psychotherapy and treatment would help people in rural areas.

“Programs that enable or facilitate social interaction between people with mental illness and the general population will also help.”

July was Mental Illness Awareness Month. This awareness month sought to educate the public about the realities of mental health conditions and encourage empathy and support for those affected. But mental health awareness shouldn’t be a special occasion discussion. Instead, we should continue to address the unique challenges faced by individuals living in rural areas, where mental health stigma often persists.