South Africa

ROLLING BLACKOUTS OP-ED

The ongoing energy crisis is affecting our mental health, already fragile after Covid

The ongoing energy crisis is affecting our mental health, already fragile after Covid

Understanding the psychological impact of load shedding is particularly critical because the country is only just emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic which had a significant impact on the economy as well as on people’s social and mental wellbeing.

In 2008 when load shedding was first implemented by Eskom, chaos descended upon the country. We were told that such “planned rolling blackouts” were necessary to protect the integrity of the national electricity grid. This was viewed as a temporary measure and as arguably just one more of the many challenges of living in South Africa.

Fifteen years later, load shedding is an integral part of almost every day of our lives. While the appointment of a new electricity minister created some hope, especially after a relatively tolerable winter period, the past few weeks have seen South Africa once again face major electricity disruptions. The first thing most of us do when we wake up in the morning is to check our local load shedding schedule so we can plan our daily activities around the times when we have electricity.

While some South Africans have never had electricity at home, for all who did, and for all who had come to depend on it for a variety of daily activities, the disruption has been massive.

South Africans are frequently commended for their “resilience” and their ability to handle numerous challenges. However, placing excessive emphasis on this resilience may downplay the psychological toll of the energy crisis.

Most of South Africa’s population already grapples with significant structural obstacles such as poverty, unemployment and high crime rates. Only a privileged minority can mitigate the adverse effects of load shedding and electricity supply limitations by equipping their homes with inverters, generators and solar panels.

The continuous disruptions caused by blackouts have generated a pervasive feeling of frustration and uncertainty, leaving people feeling powerless over their lives and surroundings. While many plan our daily routines around load shedding schedules, these schedules often change without advance notice, intensifying the sense of helplessness and lack of control.

Additional challenges such as equipment failures, cable theft and deliberate sabotage further worsen the situation by causing unanticipated power outages. These outages are increasingly resulting in water shortages because reservoirs cannot replenish during the brief intervals between power cuts and they also affect telecommunication systems.

A deteriorating national energy system that disrupts not only economic activities but also people’s educational, social and family pursuits is likely to have significant psychological consequences.

Understanding the psychological impact of load shedding is particularly critical because the country is only just emerging from the Covid-19 pandemic which had a significant impact on the economy as well as on people’s social and mental wellbeing. The aftermath of the pandemic, especially for those who suffered severe economic losses and who lost their jobs, is still ongoing and severe.

Everyday activities

The ongoing load shedding has affected everyday activities at home and at work. Families must organise childcare, meal preparation and other household chores around frequently changing load shedding schedules, often without advance notice.

Load shedding disrupts people’s sleep patterns, as many adjust their bedtime or wake-up times in accordance with these schedules, disrupting their daily routines. Educational activities such as homework and studying are disrupted and the surge in working from home which we have experienced as a result of the pandemic is also regularly interrupted.

Notably, daily commutes, a fundamental part of most people’s experiences, are severely affected, with traffic lights frequently malfunctioning even during peak traffic hours, leading to added stress and frustration in people’s daily travels.

Furthermore, in a country where safety and security are primary concerns, power outages, especially during the evening and night, contribute to people’s feelings of vulnerability. Frequently, roads and neighbourhoods are plunged into complete darkness during load shedding, rendering security systems inoperative. This situation breeds apprehension and fear, as criminals have greater opportunities to engage in unlawful activities.

The healthcare system has also been significantly affected and patient care as well as the ability of healthcare professionals to carry out their duties has been negatively impacted.

Disruption in electricity supply also potentially affects the physical health of all individuals, and physical health problems can in turn increase people’s risk of developing mental health problems.

At a fundamental level, food safety is compromised as continuous refrigeration cannot be assured, putting people at risk of foodborne illnesses and diarrhoeal diseases.

Water purification systems also rely on electricity for optimal operation, leaving people without water or facing the danger of contaminated water during load shedding. The recent cholera outbreak and contamination of rivers and coastal waters in various provinces may to a certain extent be ascribed to sewage plants lacking electricity.

All these examples bring us to the concept of mental health. The World Health Organization argues that mental health is best understood as a state of wellness that goes beyond the absence of mental disorders, but falls along a continuum of wellbeing that is experienced differently from person to person.

Mental health is affected by the different social, economic, and political systems within which people operate. Consequently, individual mental health is strongly influenced by broader environmental factors such as poverty, violence, inequality, and in our case load shedding.

While all examples discussed above may make perfect sense, there has been a paucity of psychological research in this area. This is urgently needed not only to gain a more in-depth understanding of the impact of load shedding on people’s mental health, but also to promote better access to mental health services and develop appropriate psychological interventions.

Consequently, a number of researchers at the School of Human and Community Development at the University of the Witwatersrand are currently conducting the first comprehensive academic study exploring the overall psychological impact of the ongoing energy crisis on people living in South Africa.

Through this research, we are hoping to highlight not only how people living in South Africa are psychologically impacted by load shedding, but also foreground the role that the larger sociopolitical system plays in the mental health of its population. DM

Prof Maria Marchetti-Mercer is a Professor of Psychology at the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits) and currently serving as Assistant Dean of Research for the Faculty of Humanities. She served as the Head of the School of Human and Community Development at Wits from 2012-2016. Prior to that, she was the head of the Psychology Department at the University of Pretoria from 2001-2011. 

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