Public sector mental health systems in South Africa: inter-provincial comparisons and policy implications.

01 Mar 2010
Lund C, Kleintjes S, Kakuma R, Flisher AJ, MHaPP Research Programme Consortium.


There is growing recognition that mental health is an important public health issue in South Africa. Yet mental health services remain chronically under-resourced. The aim of this study was to document levels of current public sector mental health service provision in South Africa and compare services across provinces, in relation to current national policy and legislation.


A survey was conducted of public sector mental health service resources and utilisation in South Africa during the 2005 calendar year, using the World Health Organization's Assessment Instrument for Mental Health Systems (WHO-AIMS) Version 2.2.


South African policy and legislation both advocate for community-based mental health service provision within a human rights framework. Structures are in place at national level and in all nine provinces to implement these provisions. However, there is wide variation between provinces in the level of mental health service resources and provision. Per 100,000 population, there are 2.8 beds (provincial range 0-7.0) in psychiatric inpatient units in general hospitals, 3.6 beds (0-6.4) in community residential facilities, 18 beds (7.1-39.1) in mental hospitals, and 3.5 beds (0-5.5) in forensic facilities. The total personnel working in mental health facilities are 11.95 per 100,000 population. Of these, 0.28 per 100,000 are psychiatrists, 0.45 other medical doctors (not specialised in psychiatry), 10.08 nurses, 0.32 psychologists, 0.40 social workers, 0.13 occupational therapists, and 0.28 other health or mental health workers.


Although there have been important developments in South African mental health policy and legislation, there remains widespread inequality between provinces in the resources available for mental health care; a striking absence of reliable, routinely collected data that can be used to plan services and redress current inequalities; the continued dominance of mental hospitals as a mode of service provision; and evidence of substantial unmet need for mental health care. There is an urgent need to address weak policy implementation at provincial level in South Africa.