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Queerwell lays bare the need for mental health care for LGBTQI+ community in SA

JOHANNESBURG – In various pockets around the world there are continuous talks about mental health issues.

America is currently observing Mental Health Awareness Month, Un icef has highlighted the impact of the Ukraine-Russia war on children, and we have had sports athletes like Simone Biles openly talk about their battle with mental health issues.

Simone Biles Reflects on Her Mental Health Struggles and What She Learned From the Tokyo Games https://t.co/h12qmz7h4O pic.twitter.com/3wAqffXv3L

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Back home in South Africa, rapper Riky Rick's death sparked a conversation about mental health on social media, where users shared their own struggles in an effort to break stigmas around the various mental health conditions such as anxiety, depression, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Mental health will forever be a continued conversation and Eyewitness News caught up with Dr Dulcy Rakumakoe, who is one of the founders of Queerwell, a South African-based and focused NPO that aims to provide free mental health care and support to the LGBTIQ+ community.

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"Queerwell was formed in 2019 at Vaal Pride. We were sitting discussing the needs of our community and mental health kept coming up. Our needs as the LGBTI+ were not being catered for,” said Dr Rakumakoe.

The doctor, businesswoman, CEO of Quadcare Medical Centres and DJ, just to name a few of her titles, said that she become an activist at an early age out of a need but sadly, some of the things she fought for during her student years are part of the battles she's currently fighting.

The South African Society of Psychiatrists (SASOP) had said that mental health care, particularly in poorer settings, needed to be improved.

SASOP said that close to 91% of people with mental health illnesses in South Africa did not receive treatment.

READ: SASOP calls for improved mental health care across the country

"Queer people growing up in rural areas and townships have to deal with people accusing them of being full of themselves or possessed when they are battling mental health issues due to a lack of an understanding of the issue within our communities. And there is little to no access, it's easier to be diagnosed with depression and get help in Sandton than in the township. Access is a huge issue," said Dr Rakumakoe.

Queerwell stresses that the isn’t enough being done to cater to people living in townships and rural areas, especially LGBTI+ individuals.

“There aren’t enough practitioners in the areas. The affordability as well is an issue”.

According to 2019 research from the University of Cape Town, South Africa spends 5% of the total health budget on mental health services. This is in line with the lower end of international benchmarks of the recommended amount that countries should spend on mental health.

The study estimated a treatment gap of 92%. This meant that fewer than 1 in 10 people living with a mental health condition in South Africa receive the care they need. UCT also found huge disparities between provinces in the allocation of mental health resources. Provincial spending on mental health ranged widely across all levels of the health system. For example, in Mpumalanga, spending on mental health per uninsured South African was R58.50 while in the Western Cape it was R307.40.

Outside of the Department of Health, organisations like Queerwell provide mental health services to communities that are not reached but funding is an issue.

“We have been doing the work since inception through small donations from individuals and organisations. We have not been fortunate enough to raise enough funding to keep the organisation sustainable. We reach out to you to please support us by spreading the message,” Rakumakoe said.

Queer doesn’t have a physical office, so they host monthly mental health online sessions. They have a WhatsApp number that people can message for assistance and they drive across the country hosting workshops and attending to people’s needs as best as they can.

“Funding so we can have physical offices where we run the organisation from where people can come for support groups. The cost of mental healthcare, the attitudes of providers, where the services are located is not within reach of many people,” Rakumakoe said.

Dr Rakumakoe mentioned that Queerwell hosted their first Queerwell Mental Health Conference in October 2021 and they will be hosting one this year in October.

The organisation bused in LGBTI+ members from townships and rural areas to take part in the day-long conference.

“We have pulled together government, private business, and NGOs to help us make this happen. Did I say this is a first in Africa? A conference 100% focused on the mental health and wellness of the LGBTQ. We have brought industry experts. Please mark this in your history books,” said Dr Rakumakoe of the previous conference.

READ MORE: How do I know if I have a mental health issue and where can I go for help?

According to the United States' Mayo Clinic, "a mental health concern becomes a mental illness when ongoing signs and symptoms cause frequent stress and affect your ability to function."

These illnesses are often unseen as they affect the brain's function. But it doesn't make them any less severe. The issues can cause problems in your relationships, at work, and with your connection with yourself. In grave cases, some people attempt to hurt themselves or suicide.

“Everything starts in the mind. When the mind is not OK, nothing else is,” said Queerwell’s Dr Rakumakoe.

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