‘One In Every Five Calls Suicide-Related’: New Tech To Treat Depression In South Africa

Published 2 years ago
Three woman holding their mobile phones outside and looking at the screens

With depression spiraling in a pandemic world, South African researchers receive seed funding for an online mental health screening app that speeds access to diagnosis and treatment. Health workers in this sector say those asking for help has increased by 160%. 

The Covid-19 pandemic has taken a massive toll on the mental health of people globally, as recent research has shown. The combination of public health actions such as physical distancing that have lessened social interactions and the additional economic stress amongst other factors have meant that many are experiencing increased mental health challenges. South African researchers are now developing an innovative, validated online tool to help people recognize and seek treatment for depression. 

PhD candidate Tasneem Hassem of the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, along with co-founder Professor Sumaya Laher, have been awarded almost $7,000 in seed funding to further develop and commercialize the tool, aimed at allowing users to more easily recognize and obtain treatment for depression, particularly within the South African context, where low mental health awareness and access to mental health services can still be a challenge. 
“Unfortunately, low awareness of the symptoms of depression means that many people do not know when they are depressed. During our research and through interviews with stakeholders, we determined that an online screening tool would help raise awareness of depression, reduce the stigma and facilitate quality conversations between people and health professionals” says Hassem to FORBES AFRICA. 


According to a recent report in The Lancet which assessed the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on mental health in 204 countries, anxiety and depressive disorders increased by some 25% across the countries sampled, with South Africa seeing one of the highest rates of increase worldwide.   
“The emergence of the Covid-19 pandemic has created an environment where many determinants of poor mental health are exacerbated,” the study continued.  

This is confirmed in the South African context by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG), a mental health services and advocacy organization. 

“We know that the mental health impact during Covid has been immense – we’ve seen that at SADAG,” says Cassey Chambers, SADAG’s operations coordinator, to FORBES AFRICA.  

“Just from January this year, we received over 466,000 calls to our helplines. One in every five calls is a suicide-related issue. And that’s still a conservative figure. Our call volumes from pre-Covid [to this year] has increased by 160%. Covid has definitely impacted mental health, it’s definitely added to more depression, more anxiety, added to people’s mental health issues… Covid has definitely increased the mental health impact.”  


Ensuring mental health tools are relevant to the context and location in which they will be used is a crucial part of ethical and successful interventions, which was a critical focus of Hassem’s research and piloting of the app, with the guidance of healthcare professionals. 
“Adapting the tool was challenging as we had to consider various factors such as the ethical principles associated with online mental health screening, cultural appropriateness, content validity of the items as well as the fact that a majority of potential tool users are not first-language English speakers,” says Hassem. 

The tool’s development funding comes through the University of the Witwatersrand’s Prospector course which aims to foster and develop promising entrepreneurial ideas in research – with Hassem’s proposal securing funding over seven other proposals, with the project being of possibly high value in South Africa, where mental health resources are extremely limited, with some four mental health spaces per 100,000 members of the population, and just 0.97 psychologists for the same number. 

“What is exciting in this instance is that the tool developed by Ms Hassem and Prof Laher has significant potential to support our communities in an illness that is prevalent, yet difficult to diagnose and treat not least because of the unfortunate stigma associated with it. Innovation must meet the real needs of our citizens, and it’s not just about profits,” comments Ela Romanowska, Director of Innovation Support at Wits Enterprise, which supports the initiative. 

“Our tool is specifically adapted to capture the unique depression symptoms experienced by South African individuals. The user receives instant, downloadable feedback that provides resources for seeking treatment or care and can be used in the comfort of one’s home, on any smartphone, tablet, laptop or computer,” explains Hassem.