Mental Health Challenges faced by South African Women

South Africa is a diverse country, a rainbow nation with a history of apartheid, violence and hardship. As we celebrate Women’s Day month in South Africa, we look to gain an understanding of the risk factors impacting the mental health of our motherland and her female population. Mental health refers to one’s emotional, psychological and behavioural well-being. In broader terms, this refers to one’s ability to deal with life’s challenges in a healthy, well-adjusted manner.

Research conducted by the University of Cape Town and South African Medical Research Council showed that the mental health of adolescent girls and young women in South Africa has been severely impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic (Duby et al., 2022). COVID-19 has impacted this already vulnerable population where increased isolation, further unemployment, financial stress and an increase in gender-based violence and substance abuse have compounded the already fragile mental health of the female population. 

To gain an understanding of the risk factors that the female population face, one needs to look at the mental health journey of women within the context of the rugged and unpredictable terrain of South Africa. This mental health journey begins in the stages starting from prenatal and perinatal periods, and continuing through childhood, adolescence, the adult years and finally ending at old age. Each stage of the life course will present its own unique set of stressors, obstacles and vulnerabilities, which threaten to derail the mental health of our young girls and women. 

At the outset, it is important to consider that a young girl born into South African society already forms part of a marginalised, suppressed and vulnerable gender group. A high percentage of young girls and women in South Africa are exposed to harsh environmental conditions such as racism, discrimination and social disadvantage. During the prenatal and perinatal periods, maternal health is imperative. During the maternal phase the unborn baby may be exposed to substance misuse during pregnancy. In addition, a lack of financial resources may result in poor nutrition and care for babies thus putting them at high risk of compromised mental, cognitive and physical health (Allen et al., 2014). 

During childhood and adolescence, young girls may be exposed to homes with unemployed parents, high levels of substance abuse and gender-based violence. These adverse conditions cause high levels of stress and trauma which increases the risk of developing mental health disorders including depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, eating disorders, addiction and substance abuse. Adolescence is deemed a crucial time for developing healthy social and emotional habits which should be carried forward into adulthood. Failure to develop healthy habits can contribute to poor mental health in the future. A large portion of mental health disorders developed during adolescence go untreated and are carried into adulthood (Allen et al., 2014). 

Women in adulthood and in their working age may already have begun to experience mental health struggles. During this phase the risk factors for developing a mental health disorder continue to escalate, as women experience high rates of unemployment, financial stress, gender-based violence, post-natal depression, HIV diagnosis and limited access to healthcare. 

As women enter old age their physical health deteriorates and so does their mental health.  Elderly women are also influenced by their earlier experiences and thus carry the heavy burden of their past suppression and discrimination. The never-ending challenges of low resources for healthcare, financial stress, and weakened family support can lead to depression, loneliness and isolation. 

The journey of womanhood outlined above highlights the arduous journey of women in South Africa. It highlights that mental healthcare needs to be given greater priority in South Africa. Education on increased awareness and understanding of mental health should be made a priority and implemented throughout educational institutions. The stigma that surrounds mental health should be addressed to allow women in the country to seek help without the fear of being judged. Key role-players in South Africa should continue to work towards reducing inequalities in our society which perpetuates the cycle of poor mental health. 

The women of South Africa are the bedrock of our motherland. They stand strong and sturdy, however the elements will continue to erode them and their mental health if we do not provide sufficient protection, information, and support.


 Allen, J., Balfour, R., Bell, R., & Marmot, M. (2014). Social determinants of mental health. International Review of Psychiatry, 392-407. Zoe Duby, B. B. (2022). 

Intersections between COVID-19 and socio-economic mental health stressors in the lives of South African adolescent girls and young women. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, 16-23.