Exposure to violent crime is taking its toll on SA's mental health, say experts

Children and adolescents who are exposed to violent crime experience long-term effects on their ability to undertake regular daily activities, says an expert.
Children and adolescents who are exposed to violent crime experience long-term effects on their ability to undertake regular daily activities, says an expert.
Image: 123RF/Artit Oubkaew

An increasing number of people have sought mental health services over the past year as a result of violent crime.

Shelley Bernhardt, counselling psychologist at Witkoppen Clinic in Johannesburg, has warned of the long-term impact of trauma on South Africans.

“Crime and associated trauma occurs across the spectrum. Almost all areas and communities in South Africa are affected or potentially affected by crime and all individuals across the socio-economic spectrum are vulnerable to the psychological distress associated with this,” said Bernhardt.

The clinic services communities such as Diepsloot and Msawawa, where many people have additional stressors like unemployment, which makes it harder for them to prioritise mental health.

“We see large numbers of clients who seek help for a variety of problems. Psychotherapy and medication, where indicated, are provided with referrals. If left untreated, trauma can affect a person’s ability to function in their daily lives," she said.

“But some resources are not available to individuals with poor backgrounds. They may lack the transport money to get to their appointments or not have airtime to phone a loved one for support.”

Individuals who are often exposed to crime - or the fear of the realistic risk of exposure to crime - may develop high levels of anxiety, she said.

“Crime can be experienced directly or witnessed through hearing about what happened to, or seeing the effects of crime on, a loved one, friend, neighbour, colleague or through one’s social network.”

Clinical psychologist Dr Henk Swanepoel said crime had long-term effects on the ability of children and adolescents to undertake their daily activities.

“Sadly, children and adolescents are often exposed to violent crime. For example, parents living in areas of high crime keep their children indoors to avoid them becoming victims of violence. This deprives the children of much-needed social interaction,” he said.

"Children and adolescents exposed to violence are at risk for poor long-term behavioural and mental health outcomes - regardless of whether they are victims, direct witnesses or hear about the crime."

Exposure to violence results in feelings of insecurity and paranoia. “The answer is to teach children the principles of right and wrong, to love and care for each other and stand together to create a peaceful, united front in society,” said Swanepoel.

The latest police crime statistics paint a horrific picture. A total of 21,022 people were murdered in South Africa in the year from April 1 2018 to March 31 2019, while 52,420 were victims of sexual offences. This was an increase of 3.4% and 4.6% respectively.


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