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Wits students’ pleas for mentally ill patients ignored

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Nozipho Mpanza
February17/ 2017
  • A letter that students in the Wits Occupational Therapy class of 2016 wrote to authorities pleading against the closure of one Life Esidimeni Care centre was ignored. 

Students from the Wits Occupational Therapy class of 2016 are still waiting for action after warning the national health department last year against the closure of the Waverley Life Esidimeni Care Centre, Germiston.

The centre was one of several closed last year, resulting in the deaths of at least 94 mentally ill patients who were sent to ill-equipped non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Gauteng.

Shelley Wilsnach, a third year occupational therapy student and class representative of the group of 47 at the time, drafted the letter on behalf of her classmates. It was sent to a number of individuals including Gauteng premier David Makhura and then-Health MEC Qedani Mahlangu.

“I was very upset about it, I was very worried so I started drafting the letter in December 2015 after speaking to some classmates,” said Wilsnach. Wilsnach was one of the many Wits occupational therapy students who spent part of their third year rotation working with some of the patients at the Waverley centre.  She said she became concerned for the wellbeing of the patients after hearing about the closure of the centre.

“They can’t cope in communities and a lot of their families don’t know how to take care of them. A change in routine is detrimental to psychiatric patients and these NGOs are not equipped to care for them,” said Wilsnach. Occupational therapy students work closely with their patients during their rotations.  Their job in the care centres is to help the patients develop and maintain habits of daily living.

In the letter, dated January 18, 2016, the students expressed their concerns about the closure of the centre: “As we are not yet at the stage where we can provide sufficient care within the communities to the scale at which it is needed, it is imperative that we properly provide for persons with mental illness as best we can, which for now means institutions such as Waverley Care Centre.”

Although authorities have denied receiving the letter, the students received a response from the Chief Director of the Esidimeni case at the Department of Health, Molefi Mosenogi.

Mosenogi subsequently invited the students to a consultation meeting where MEC Mahlangu addressed patients and families about the pending closure of the centre. When the students tried to raise their concerns at the meeting, they were silenced by Mahlangu who said the students were simply worried about where they would complete their practicals following the closure. Mosenogi did not object to the claims, according to Wilsnach.

“We have a lot of other placements. The main concern definitely wasn’t our pracs,” Wilsnach said.

Two meetings were organised between two members of the health department and the head of the School of Therapeutic Sciences along with three heads of department at the school to discuss the contents of the letter. In each meeting, the Wits faculty expressed their concerns on the matter, the students were not present but nothing ever came of it.

“The students wrote this letter as part of their social responsibility and advocacy. It was not a department initiative, it was a student initiative although they [students] did consult,” said head of the Wits Occupational Therapy department Professor Pat de Witt.

According to De Witt, the saddest part of the debacle is the misrepresentation of information given to patients and families when concerns were raised about the pending move. “There was misinformation about where these patients would end up,” she said.

Although their first warning was ignored, the students are now warning that the damage is done and the country should focus on the living to avoid more trauma. “Ninety-four people died but there are hundreds more still stuck at these NGOs,” said Wilsnach.

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Nozipho Mpanza