The Ithemba Foundation


Newsletter June 2020


Covid-19 and your mental health

The impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on mental health should not be underestimated and our mental health system needs urgent strengthening through many interventions, the Executive Head of the Department of Psychiatry at Stellenbosch University, Professor Soraya Seedat, recently wrote.

The World Health Organisation’s mental health experts also warned that as the pandemic drags on, the mounting combination of a never experienced human and economic tragedy, also the combination of death, joblessness, loneliness and uncertainty, is fuelling a mental health crisis. Governments should put these issues “front and centre” and not only focus on fighting the pandemic.

According to Seedat “the profound negative effects” of stress, fear, loss and grief should not be ignored. The pandemic and the effects of the lockdown, “independently and in combination, have unintended consequences by severing family ties and inhibiting social norms, values and rituals”. This will have a “severe” toll on mental health, not only in the short-term, but “for many years to come”. 

Already the pandemic has an effect on the management of hospital inpatients and outpatients with psychiatric illnesses. Prior to Covid-19, these services were already overstretched and under-resourced in terms of bed capacity and shortages of mental health staff. More than ever, given the scale of the pandemic, sound research is needed “to learn more about the psychiatric and neurological manifestations and their impact”. Indeed, it “may be prudent to over-estimate” the mental health consequences of this “ravaging virus”, said Seedat.


Corona and anxiety

Even those who previously have never experienced feelings of anxiety now have an understanding what anxiety means. The severe measures as an attempt to curtail the spreading of Covid-19, especially the lock-down isolation, plus the anxiety that one may be exposed to the virus when you leave the safety of your house, cause feelings of insecurity that can deepen already existing anxiety disorders.

But, as counsellor and author on anxiety, Tanya J Peterson, wrote: One should focus on the character strengths that people living with anxiety have, although one may initially “scoff at the idea”. But, indeed, the five character strengths of those living with anxiety, according to Peterson, are:

  1. Courage: “It takes a great amount of bravery and persistence to live and function in the world despite anxiety.” And: “No matter the type of anxiety, it is courageous to persist rather than give up.”
  2. Moderation: People living with panic disorder or anxiety attacks can feel they are losing control. All those “what-if and imagined scenarios” can paralyse. But, wrote Peterson, it takes “a high degree of self-control to get through a panic attack, especially in public”. Indeed, people living with anxiety “definitely are high in the character strengths of moderation and self-control”.
  3. Transcendence: Despite anxiety, anxious people “tend to be hopeful” even though this may sound like an oxymoron. Hopeful, when everything seems lost and hopeless? But, yes, “transcendence and hope are indeed character strengths of people living with anxiety”. When someone takes “little steps every day and picks themselves up, dusts themselves off, and starts all over again, this person living with anxiety has hope”.
  4. Curiosity: Anxiety is a malfunction of the brain when it goes on auto pilot with those racing thoughts. But, to Peterson, this is really a signifier of the character strength of curiosity. “This means, too, that we can use this strength in beating anxiety; we can take one of anxiety’s thoughts and turn it around properly.”
  5. Kindness: Particularly social anxiety disorder makes one afraid of being judged by others, meaning you avoid interaction. But simultaneously, wrote Peterson, the character strength of kindness is often found in people living with anxiety

Especially in these times of uncertainty, isolation and stress, remember: “Living with anxiety is something you do; character strengths are who you are.” Anxiety disorders are something one lives with and have them treated. Character strengths, on the other hand, are part of who you are. “Find your strengths, embrace them, and live well with them,” wrote Peterson.

More at


#CrazySocks4Docs 2020

Amid the raging Covid-19 pandemic we especially need to show our support for the mental well-being of our healthcare workers. They are our carers fighting for us in the front lines against this brutal enemy, and on this year’s #CrazySocks4Docs Day on Friday, 29 May, we wore our funky, mismatched socks to show we #Care4OurCarers.

Ithemba first picked up the CS4D campaign in 2018, then on May 30, and promoted it informally that year. It got so much traction that Ithemba decided to make it an official project for 2019. The campaign focuses on the fact that mental health among healthcare workers should be acknowledged and not stigmatised (also see Last year, with the aid of Falke Socks, we distributed 10 000 pairs of funky mismatched socks on all of South Africa’s medical campuses and encouraged medical students to post sock-selfies on #CS4D Day. The sock-selfie with the most likes on each campus won its owner R1 000.

For 2020, Ithemba had big plans, but Covid-19 meant that most had to be cancelled – ironically at a time when healthcare workers are taking so much strain as our fighters on the frontline against an invisible enemy. Still, we galvanized all to wear socks to show our healthcare workers we #Care4OurCarers. Inspiring sock-selfies were posted on social media by healthcare workers, medical students and the public. The campaign reached 54,288 people across Facebook and Instagram, and posts received thousands of likes from enthusiastic supporters.

The winners of this year’s sock-selfie competition with R1 000 per campus up for grabs on the participating campuses, were Didintle Nash Edmunds from the University of Witwatersrand, Sandisiwe Boko from Walter Sisulu University, Alwizo C Jood from Stellenbosch University, Mfundo Pardon Sibuyi from the University of Pretoria and Naledi Bohlale Mohale from the University of Cape Town.


Ever participated in a ... virtual walkathon?

Well, now’s your opportunity! And no, it does not mean you can laze away on the sofa while “virtually” walking. It means you really walk the walk, and, of course, talk the talk. Our annual Hope Hike and Hope Bike, scheduled every year in October together with the WHO’s Mental Health Awareness Day on 10 October, since last year also South Africa’s Mental Health Awareness Month, will this year have to be a virtual Hike/Bike because of Covid-19. It is anticipated that the pandemic might peak in August or September in South Africa, which means that gatherings of crowds cause “superspreading”.

Thus, as citizens, we need to be responsible in all our actions. With the pandemic not only being a physical threat, but also wreaking havoc with our mental health, you can do something about it by entering our 2020 Virtual Hope Hike and Bike on Sunday, 4 October – meaning we all have the whole of October to raise awareness around the crucial aspect of mental health because without mental health, there is no health. The Covid-19 pandemic wreaked havoc, also psychologically, and we should acknowledge this and be pro-active. And by participating, you can make a contribution to research on mental health AND stand the chance to win a fantastic Fitbit.

What do you need to do? Enter online on, click on the Hope Hike/Bike logo, enter (with a donation of your choice), and on 4 October, you walk, jog or cycle (ok, even if it is just around the block), take a selfie and post it together with your entry number on Ithemba’s social media. By posting your selfie, South African participants stand the chance to win one of ten Fitbits.


Our “just in time” Ithemba workshops

Two workshops on 7 and 14 March on the benefits of writing as therapy in aid of Ithemba were held literally “just in time”. Although it was long before lockdown on 26 March, distance was already kept, also with hand sanitisers present at the entrance to the venue, and everyone was cognisant of the fact that we were on the threshold of something that will change our planet for ever. The workshop on writing as therapy was presented by Ithemba director Professor Lizette Rabe, based on her book Om tot verhaal te kom – Verwerk trauma en verlies deur skryfterapie.* Ironically, this time of lock-down isolation, insecurity, anxiety and plain fear for the lives of our loved ones and everything that is dear to us, including total social upheaval and the immense cost of job losses, means writing therapy, or journaling, is exactly what we need. Lizette was also asked to start a blog on writing therapy on Litnet (

* The book is published by Lapa, available in bookstores, or go to for home delivery.

From left: Erna Oosthuizen and Dana Snyman who sold their Swarthond products at the workshop, Lize Beekman, and Lizette Rabe.




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