Mental illness on the agenda

The Judicial Inspectorate for Correctional Services (JCIS) held a mental illness seminar at West Bank Correctional Facility on Friday.

The province has been identified as having the largest number of incarcerated mentally ill patients in the country.

Representatives from stakeholders such as the South African Human Rights Commission and the South African Federation for Mental Health were in attendance.

BALANCING ACT Inspecting Judge, Justice Johann van der Westhuizen speaking at the JCIS mental illness seminar in East London
Picture: AMANDA NANO

JCIS inspecting judge, Justice Johann van der Westhuizen, said it was very difficult to sentence a mentally ill person and a judge must try to understand the mental state of an accused.

“The lines are blurred and they should be defined as to adequately help the relevant mentally ill and state patients,” said Van der Westhuizen.

He added that like many other problems and roots in the healthcare system, the prison system was also affected.

The JCIS, in light of the Life Esidimeni tragedy, seeks to assist in solving the problems of backlogs within the correctional services system.

Makhanda’s (Grahamstown) Fort England Psychiatric Hospital’s Dr Juanmari Kruger described a grim situation of treatment waiting periods of up to three years as they received well over 200 patients a year for observations.

“There is also no proper mental healthcare services on the outside such as halfway houses and community outreach teams in the country.

“Such teams can be found in the Western Cape, but only service a small area,” Kruger said.

She added that the province had a dire need for psychiatrists, other psychiatric staff and was under-funded.

Department of correctional services (DCS) national commissioner Arthur Fraser said they had “insufficient centres and staff to deal with mental illness”.

“Inmates must be screened when they come in but it’s challenging because there’s no health file to indicate any mental illness,” he said.

“All mentally ill persons are considered vulnerable in our society, irrespective of whether they are incarcerated or not.We need to treat our citizens with the dignity they deserve in order to preserve and protect our society in its entirety,” Van der Westhuizen said.

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