The Importance Of Mental Health In The Non-Profit Sector

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Mental health remains unintegrated and misunderstood across the healthcare sector. South Africans feel let down by the system, which adds to the apathy and fear of seeking treatment.


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Finances, unemployment, transport, violence, and stigma mean NPOs like the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) have had to increase their reach to communities and ensure they have the resources to remain consistent and sustainable.

The state of mental health in South African NPOs

Healthcare workers worldwide face daily challenges in prioritising their own health and well-being. The state of mental health among healthcare workers in the private, public, and NPO sectors is rapidly becoming an epidemic in itself.

“NPOs have always provided help, resources and support to others, but never before has the mental health of our NPOs been prioritised,” says SADAG Operations Director Cassey Chambers. “Covid taught us the importance of caring for our mental health.” NPO workers continue to provide crucial services for those affected by poor mental and physical health, as well as financial and societal issues. They continue to do so despite limited resources and sustained exposure to social suffering.

SADAG, in partnership with Tshikululu Social Investments, has accordingly adapted to the needs of our people with NPOwer – a first-of-its kind NPO mental health support programme that offers mental health care and support to all NPOs.

SADAG’s NPOwer has a 24-hour toll-free line and is on three dominant social media platforms (Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) to provide free on-the-go mental health support. NPOwer provides a safe, non-judgmental space for all healthcare providers to be open and ask for help when they need to.

NPOwer’s work

One of NPOwer’s functions is to provide workshops and debriefing sessions for people in the NPO sector to overcome challenging circumstances like addiction, unemployment, domestic and gender-based violence, and suicide.

Because of the nature of the work non-profits do, staff members and volunteers are often exposed to trauma daily and often experience secondary trauma. We have learned that people working in the NPO sector prefer support in a group setting rather than an individual setting.

NPOwer has hosted online support groups on the second Friday of the month since 2021. The attendance increases every month. In 2022 alone, NPOwer conducted 467 debriefing sessions to enable participants to share their initial reactions and emotions following a critical incident.

In 2023 NPOwer started Facebook Live Coffee Connect sessions for NPO workers to engage and get to know one another in a casual manner.

“When we are part of the organisation sector, we know what the organisation stands for, but too often we don't get to know the people we work with. This platform allows us to get to know one another and share the highs and lows,” says SADAG’s Divashnee Pillay.

“In the last NPOwer Coffee Connect, in June, we reached 292 people who engaged, watched, and shared the session.”

Improving mental health of NPO workers

There are a number of ways to improve NPO workers’ mental health. The first is to know that burnout is real and there is help. Fostering trusting, empathetic relationships between NPO leaders and their staff is first prize. All sectors should be educated about mental health and the importance of self-care and support structures.

In the health and NPO sectors, it is critical that staff and volunteers know signs and symptoms and know that ‘being not OK’ is allowed and help is available across all platforms.

Some suitable interventions include implementing simple and structured touchpoints with staff to identify challenges and help address issues as and when they arise; provide immediate mental health services to staff through the existing NPO resources, such as the NPOwer helpline; encourage staff to make use of medical aid benefits or local clinics, or reach out to available lay psychosocial resources such as church groups and support group networks.

Holding interdepartmental webinars and staff debriefing sessions assists in fostering a culture of togetherness and creates a safe space to share. Paying extra attention to schedules, time off, and workloads can also help identify any staff that may be overloaded.

It’s vital to have clear roles and responsibilities and manage expectations to find more sustainable ways of working.

Take one step towards seeking help – call NPOwer, share your story with others, speak to someone about how you are coping, listen to other people’s stories, join a support group, follow NPOwer on social media, access mental health resources… That first step is the hardest. After that step, you are not alone.

This article first appeared in the Inyathelo 2023 annual report.

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