It is of great importance to give persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities a voice and to recognise that they are ultimately the experts in mental health and should thus always be key partners among all stakeholders within the mental health sector. Outside of the mental health field and within communities, persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities must be empowered to participate at all levels of their lives. Prevalence rates of stigma attached to these disabilities are very high, not b just in SA, but worldwide, which creates barriers in accessing and enjoying all rights enshrined in the South African Constitution’s Bill of Rights and other relevant policies and legislation such as the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. Persons with mental disabilities play a crucial role in breaking down these barriers through being empowered and actively engaging with the public and private sectors, and expressing their concerns, needs, challenges and working together to overcome these. Because of their personal experiences, these individuals are also a key source of awareness on mental health, with direct access to and in-depth knowledge about specific communities across South Africa.
People with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities themselves are however yet to effectively communicate and raise awareness of their needs and to self-advocate on all public platforms for their rights to be implemented and their challenges to be addressed. The lack of a strong national self-advocacy network results in continued social isolation and marginalisation of these individuals. In this way, human rights violations continue unmonitored and ignored, which result in unequal and limited access to resources and protection. These conditions impact directly on the material and lived reality of persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities.
The Department of Health’s National Mental Health Policy Framework and Strategic Action Plan for 2013-2020 emphasises (in point 7.5 on Advocacy) that there is a commitment from the Department of Health to (4) “give expo sure to positive images of mental health advocates, prominent user role models and well-known and influential champions for mental health in order to change discriminatory attitudes toward mental disability. This work will be framed within the provisions of the UN Convention of the Rights of Disabled Persons and the human rights based framework of South African law, as well as advocacy guidelines from the WHO” and further states (5) “Emphasis will be placed on ensuring representation of people with mental disability on the broader disability agenda, and developing capacity to place mental health user concerns on the political, development and public health agenda”. The goals listed under point 7.5 are set to be achieved by 2015, and it is therefore critical that this be prioritised and that persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities are empowered and able to fully participate within the ambit of these activities and to successfully achieve these goals.
Thus far, advocacy groups have been established in some provinces, often with the assistance of community-based mental health organisations, functioning at different levels. However, they often still lack sufficient capacity to be strong, united and representative voices for persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities at a national level. SAFMH recognises that it has an extremely important role to play in the strengthening of existing advocacy groups, while also facilitating a national platform for persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities where information can be shared and voices enabled. This platform can be accessed on social media, such as our SAMHAM Facebook group, SAMHAM Twitter page and SAMHAM Instagram page and involves the public requesting to join these social media platforms. Mental health information is shared on these platforms. The information shared is easily readable and can be shared with other people, thus allowing the content to reach more persons with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities.
SAFMH recognises that it has an important part to play in the empowerment of persons with psychosocial and intellectual disabilities in South Africa, and this forms the cornerstone of our advocacy work. SAFMH also recognises that, as a national NGO with limited resources, it is important for the organisation to find its niche in the field of advocacy and awareness, and going forward, SAFMH’s focus will thus be on the empowerment of community-based mental health providers to ensure that they in turn can work directly with persons with intellectual and psychosocial disabilities at community level to build strong and sustainable local advocacy groups, which can in turn link into SAFMH’s national online platform.
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