'Stigma contributed to NGO deaths'
A woman who lost her son in the Life Esidimeni tragedy says she felt shunned by family members after he fell ill.
Lindiwe Msimanga's son, Siyabulela, is one of 143 mentally ill patients in Gauteng who died after they were removed from Life Esidimeni facilities and placed in unfit NGOs.
Arbitration hearings were set up following the release of a damning report by health ombudsman Professor Malegapuru Makgoba on the harrowing details behind the deaths of patients.
On Friday, a psychiatric expert called to testify at the hearings, Professor Christoffel Grobler, said the tragedy was caused by a general disregard for people living with mental illness by society.
Msimanga said relatives were not accepting of Siyabulela.
"It was hard because some of my relatives did not want my child near them. It was very hurtful. People don't understand that mental illness can happen to anyone," she said.
Anna Mthembu, whose sister Busisiwe Shabalala died at an NGO in Cullinan, east of Pretoria, said people said hurtful things about mental patients.
"The community does not treat them well. They also make mean comments, saying that a person is bewitched," Mthembu said.
Patience Sithole said her elder brother Benjamin Maphisa was diagnosed with schizophrenia during the 1980s and was feared by relatives and people in the community.
Maphisa survived the ordeal after his family discovered him starved and dirty at an NGO in Tshwane.
"He becomes violent sometimes because of his condition, so most people are afraid of him," Sithole said.
She said people were unkind to those with mental illness.
"Many people don't understand mental illness," Sithole said.
"They say it is witchcraft."
During his testimony, Grobler said the tragedy happened because of society's disregard for people who live with mental illness.
He said they were stigmatised, which contributed towards the violation of their rights.
Grobler said this was a disturbing global pattern where mental patients were dehumanised, adding that governments were reluctant to spend money on mental healthcare.
"It has a lot to do with stigmatisation and the fact that mental health is not seen as a priority by our managers. There is a pattern here, and the pattern has to do with stigmatisation and looking down on the mentally ill."
Grobler also testified on matters of ethics, saying the decision to implement cost-cutting measures to the detriment of patients was unethical.
He said officials should have foreseen that moving patients to NGOs without following due procedure would result in their harm.
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