Updated: Jun 3, 2020
The COVID-19 pandemic is placing huge additional strain on South Africa's poorer citizens. Millions of South Africa’s most vulnerable families are confined in large numbers to small informal houses, with the stress of food insecurity and the threat of death by the disease escalating. It is well known that high levels of systemic stress (termed toxic stress in academic literature), coupled with low levels of social contact (opportunities to connect with your social support system), negatively impacts on individual mental health and on the quality of family relationships. High levels of stress lead to increased tension and conflict in adult relationships, as well as parent-child relationships. In extreme cases instances of gender-based violence, child abuse, and child neglect increase, as we have seen in news reports since lock down.
The research is particularly unequivocal on the impact of toxic stress levels on young infants. Exposure to toxic stress (consistent and high levels of stress) in the first 1000 days of life (conception to 2 years) has a catastrophic impact on the infant brain. When a mother is stressed, her body releases cortisol. This hormone crosses the placenta and in high levels can damage the brain of the developing foetus. Post-birth, high levels of parental stress can lead to a tense family atmosphere, which infants are extremely sensitive to. Infants are highly stressed by anxious, tense, and angry caregivers. As with their mothers, experiences of stress in the family environment leads to heightened stress hormones (cortisol) being released in the infant’s body. The infant’s early exposure to heightened cortisol has lifelong implications for mental and physical health, as well as learning and social functioning.
South Africa’s economic and social future is dependent on the optimal development of our youth. In turn, the optimal development of our youth is dependant on the quality of parenting they receive and the mental health of their parents. With the isolation and increased stress currently placed on the most vulnerable of South African families by the COVID-19 pandemic, and the necessary restrictions on social contact and economic activity, the need for psychosocial intervention is most urgent. Psychosocial interventions are critical if we are to curb the impact that this disease (and the measures taken to slow its spread) will have on mental health, learning, and social functioning for years to come.