COVID-19 and mental health in the NGO sector in South Africa: findings and discussion

Amidst the abrupt demands of a rapidly shifting social environment and the exacerbation of existing psychosocial and economic problems during COVID-19, non-governmental organisations (NGOs) rose to the challenge and quickly mobilised to carry the burden of the social, economic, and community impacts of the pandemic.

NGOs in South Africa provided essential emergency relief and life-saving resources for thousands of families across the country. Yet the heavy workplace and personal burdens of the pandemic on NGO staff, especially among an already strained and psychological burdened workforce, have posed alarming risks for direct psychological damage, secondary trauma, and future mental illness risk across individuals the sector.

To understand the lived experience, burden, and needs of NGO professionals in South Africa, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) and the Tshikululu Social Investments partnered to launch the NPOwer Mental Health Support Program, which included a free, 24/7 helpline for NGO professionals and a survey querying experiences and the capacities of NGOs during the pandemic.

Through a collaboration with SADAG and Tshikululu, I designed and evaluated the survey results of approximately 200 NGOs – results showed that two-thirds of NGO professionals exhibited moderate to severe psychological morbidity between October 2020 to March 2021 during the coronavirus disease pandemic. Significant risk factors for elevated psychological morbidity included social stress, being male, and fewer workplace mental health resources. NGO workers faced considerable stress at work and home and consequently, exhibited a range of symptoms of psychological distress, including insomnia, helplessness, excessive worrying, a disconnect from their work and family, cynicism, and burnout. Nearly half of NGOs offered some form of psychosocial support to their staff, yet many NGO workers did not seek professional psychological assistance.

I had the pleasure of speaking about these results with my close colleague, (soon-to-be Dr.) Garret Barnwell. He has over ten years of experience working in and with the NGO sector providing private psychological services to NGO and healthcare staff. He has also held management positions in the NGO sectors, being the former Deputy Head of Mission for Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in South Africa and the former MSF Southern Africa president. Today, he provides psychological support to NGO staff and he is still active within civil society, focusing on rural environmental justice issues and climate psychology.

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