Psychological Society of South Africa
Psychological Society of South Africa

Creating social capital for mental health: A case study of the Durban advocacy walk

By Suntosh R Pillay

On October 15, the Durban community will meet at the North Beach amphitheatre and ‘Step up for Mental Health’. This will be a mass community initiative for Mental Health Awareness Month, organised by the KZN Mental Health Advocacy Group, of which PsySSA KZN is a partner. It is community and social psychology in action, in one of the largest multi-stakeholder mental health events in the province.

As one of the organisers, a clinical psychologist in public service, I was struck by the profound lack of consistent interprofessional collaboration for advocacy purposes. Mental health operates in a very disconnected manner – each group or person or organisation does their own little thing in their little corner. While some great stuff is happening in these corners, like research in the academic corners or psychotherapeutic innovations in the service-delivery corners, they tend to happen in silos. There is also poor civic engagement in mental health advocacy, and communities appear to be waiting for Godot to make mental health matter. We know how that story ends.

The problem, therefore, appears to be a lack of social capital.

Relationships as capital
Social capital is a relational resource – it’s the social network in a community and their norms, values, histories, and abilities. In the absence of financial capital, which is a familiar narrative in the mental health sector, we have to rely on alternative forms of capital. “Relationships” as capital seems intuitive and normative in our socio-cultural context. Ubuntu, after all, is a relational philosophy, and African psychology is based on collectivist ontology.

In a review of the status of mental health promotion efforts in South Africa, Inge Peterson, Arvin Bhana and Leslie Swartz conclude that “a starting point for the development of a plan of action for mental health promotion and prevention in South Africa, would be the development of a multisectoral platform for engagement of various stakeholders at national, provincial and district levels” (Afr J Psychiatry 2012, 15: 411-416).

These multisector collaborations inevitably are attempts at building social capital.

Deepa Narayan (1999) divided social capital into “bonding” and “bridging” – where bonding social capital occurs horizontally between groups that are similar (e.g. psychology departments of different hospitals) and bridging social capital, which occurs vertically between groups that are on different rungs of the hierarchy (e.g. a psychology department in a hospital and the provincial directorate for mental health).

Untapped energy
Last year, when we organised the walk for the first time, we were pleasantly surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response by a diverse range of organisations and people who wanted to donate, sponsor and contribute resources. There was a good balance of horizontal and vertical capital – the private, public, non-profit, service user, academic, and political and government sector all came together to walk and talk about mental health (despite it being a bitterly cold and windy winter morning!). Over 15 organisations and 300 people braved weather to ‘Step up for mental health’ (the slogan of the day).

The need to connect and collaborate is definitely present. There is an underlying, untapped energy to come together for the bigger picture, rather than zooming in on the small picture and struggling to connect the dots.

In summary, community and social psychology initiatives need to pay special attention to how social capital is being built, in a real-world sense for real-world projects. Our walk, in its own small way, is beginning to see the benefits of tapping into the relational resources that are available for broader activism around mental health.

If you would like to attend or organise one in your city, let us know.

For more information, email [email protected]

Suntosh R Pillay is a clinical psychologist in public service in KZN and chairperson of the Equity and Transformation Standing Committee of PsySSA. This article was first published in PsyTalk

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