30 October 2012

South Africa: The Psychological Strain of Living in Tin Can Town

Photo: Jaspreet Kindra/IRIN
The overwhelming adversity that comes with living in an informal dwelling felt "like a mountain fell on me", said one participant.

Cape Town — A recent academic study has identified a range of mental health disorders suffered by shack dwellers in South Africa's Western Cape Province, from chronic insomnia to low self-esteem.

The study, The Impact of Living in Transitional Communities; The Experiences of People in Blikkiesdorp and Happy Valley, was conducted by the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and Cape Peninsula University of Technology (CPUT). Because of budget considerations, the study was constrained to two settlements.

"The researchers did not have the resources to do large-scale interviews, so instead we set up four different focus groups of between 10 and 20 people living in Blikkiesdorp and another similar transit camp called Happy Valley. And we found there was a high level of correlation between the findings in each case," Shaheed Mahomed, a CPUT civil engineer lecturer and Blikkiesdorp community activist told IRIN.

Among the mental health issues identified were depression, anxiety and panic attacks, chronic insomnia, anger and low self-esteem.

No hope

The study's authors said there was a dearth of information about the mental health of shack dwellers; the report was an attempt to address this knowledge gap.

Blikkiesdorp - also known as "Tin Can Town" - was established in 2008 as a temporary transit camp for 600 people. It has since grown to hold more than 4,000 inhabitants in 1,500 one-roomed corrugated iron structures, about 34km from Cape Town. Happy Valley is another relocation camp in the same vicinity, inhabited by 3,000 people. The camps were created ahead of the 2010 World Cup, which South Africa hosted, to house people removed from illegally occupied buildings.

The big negative to come out of the interviews was the sense of hopelessness and fatalism these people end up succumbing to

Rasheed Ahmed, a clinical psychologist at UWC who led the team of psychology student researchers, told IRIN, "The big negative to come out of the interviews was the sense of hopelessness and fatalism these people end up succumbing to. A lot of this has to do with the fact they see no future for themselves. Humans have to have hope and a sense of purpose to develop."

"Future orientation is crucial for a healthy life, both mentally and physically. Many of the people interviewed described ongoing psychosomatic complaints like headaches that were clearly linked to stress and anxiety," he said.

Challenges massive

Etienne Clarson, a Blikkiesdorp resident and community leader campaigning for low-cost housing, told IRIN the area is a "human dumping ground."

"We are stuck here because we have nowhere to go, and the challenges we face are massive," Clarson said. "There are huge problems with crime - people are afraid to leave their homes because they will be robbed. We are far from employment opportunities so no one has money. People are ashamed of their situation, and they have no confidence or self-esteem."

The study found the living conditions had significantly influenced social and interpersonal relations, with the lack of privacy having a negative effect on people's relationships, often resulting in marital problems. Children had no recreational facilities and were exposed to drug- and gang-related activities as young as age five.

However, the study revealed that, in a minority cases, the adversity led to high levels of resilience. "A very small proportion of people showed exceptional resilience when faced by these issues. This manifested itself in community activism, primarily. But it should not be seen as a major positive. If someone gets up after being knocked down, we should keep the focus on why they were knocked down in the first place," Ahmed said.

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations.]

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