Vacant psychiatric posts blamed for ‘prison crisis’
Experts warn of an impending crisis as more than 100 awaiting trial prisoners miss assessments for more than two years
Failure to fill vacant posts for psychiatrists and psychologists is compromising the provision of mental healthcare services in the public sector.
In 2014, about a third of available posts were not filled and there is no indication that this situation has improved.
Experts also blame the shortage for what they view as an impending crisis in Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape, where more than 100 awaiting trial prisoners have been waiting for more than two years to be assessed on their fitness to appear in court.
Mental health was brought into the spotlight after health ombudsman Malegapuru Makgoba revealed that negligence and recklessness on the part of the Gauteng health department had led to the deaths of more than 100 mentally ill patients.
Data from 2014 from the provinces shows that fewer than 600 psychiatry and psychology specialists were servicing 45-million South Africans who did not have access to medical schemes.
Health Minster Aaron Motsoaledi told Parliament in June that 114 people were being housed in correctional services facilities due to inadequate mental health facilities in Mpumalanga and the Eastern Cape. Mpumalanga does not have a specialised psychiatric hospital to render this service.
"Currently, patients are referred to Weskoppies Hospital in Gauteng when a bed becomes available," Motsoaledi said.
In the Eastern Cape, 99 patients have been housed for up to 22 months at seven facilities, with the bulk of patients placed in East London.
Eastern Cape health department spokesman Sizwe Khuphela said the province was housing more than 2,000 mentally ill patients awaiting trial. "Fort England in Grahamstown caters for patients referred to it by the courts," he said
But the department said plans were under way to build a hospital to ease the backlog.
Cluster manager of non-communicable diseases at the Department of Health Prof Melvyn Freeman said there was a lot of pressure on the services for observation of prisoners.
Freeman said mental health evaluations were often held back by the fact that the panel had to consist of three psychologists for those who were accused of serious crimes.