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How rolling blackouts in Africa may spark mental health issues

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By Kelly-Jane Turner

I began writing this during loadshedding, with my laptop battery at 35 percent and using my phone (with depleting data) as a hotspot.

South Africans are usually known to “make a plan” when the odds are against us, but it becomes challenging when rolling blackouts permeate every aspect of our lives.

Our batteries and our patience can only last so long.

The will to remain optimistic seems to be lost in emotions of frustration, anger, and discouragement.

We are all affected in some way or another by loadshedding. It reaches our day-to-day lives, our businesses and even our mental health.

Dr Katlego Mothudi, Managing Director for the Board of Healthcare Funders, said that load shedding can serve as a trigger, particularly in people who deal with anxiety.

“Even for those who do not necessarily deal with mental health issues, it could spark some fears based on being unsafe and isolated,” he said.

Clinical Psychologist based in Johannesburg, Dr Colinda Linde, said that uncertainty and inconsistency are two primary causes of stress and anxiety.

“Anxiety is heightened during times of uncertainty, and when this is prolonged the emotion can turn into helplessness and depression, or go in the other direction and become anger.

“Ongoing and inconsistent load shedding is certainly increasing levels of stress, frustration and anger, in a population which is already stretched in terms of having come through a pandemic and socio-economic instability,” she said.

A student studies via candlelight. Picture: African News Agency (ANA)

For over a decade and a half, South Africa has experienced multiple periods of load shedding.

The lights go out when the country’s demand for electricity exceeds Eskom’s available supply. The energy supplier then plans supply interruptions and rotating the available electricity between customers.

South Africa is by no means the only African country sitting in the dark.

According to the Africa Infrastructure Knowledge Programme, more than 30 African countries are experiencing power shortages and regular interruptions in service.

Frequent power outages affect businesses and can lead to big losses in forgone sales and damaged equipment.

“For some countries, it has shaved as much as one-quarter of a percentage point off annual per capita GDP growth rates,” according to a programme report.

Countries including Nigeria, Central African Republic, Congo, Botswana, Zambia, Namibia, Sierra Leone, Tanzania, all experience load shedding.

The effects of loadshedding and who it affects the most Clinical Psychologist at Akeso Crescent Clinic in Johannesburg, Christopher Kemp, said that loadshedding could add to the growing sense of despair that many South Africans feel, with a struggling economy and infrastructure.

“It disrupts businesses, livelihoods, and thus creates additional financial stress in a time when people cannot afford anymore. It also engenders boredom, frustration and familial stress – creating more domestic strife and disrupting family rituals such as mealtimes and homework,” he said.

Wealthier populations with more access to alternative sources of power, including generators, solar panels, or Uninterrupted Power Supply (UPS) devices feel the effects of load shedding to a much lesser extent.

“It is unfortunately the poor who will suffer the most psychologically from boredom and lack of stimulation, as well as being the most affected by the economic ramifications,” Kemp said.

In a study conducted in Ghana, researchers found that the electricity supply crisis impacted on the mental wellbeing of the population, especially among university students.

The article, Erratic electricity supply and anxiety disorders among university students in Ghana: a cross sectional study, found that students who relied on the consistent supply of electricity were more likely to suffer from a mental health condition.

“We found in this study that overall, nearly 26 percent of the students who participated in the study indicated that they felt nervous, anxious or on edge ‘almost daily. This suggests that the erratic power supply in the country influenced the mental wellbeing of more than a quarter of the tertiary level students,” according to the researchers.

The erratic power supply on the University of Ghana campus resulted in 61percent of the students indicating that it made their studies very difficult or worse.

From a psychological perspective, Linde said when there is uncertainty as to when load shedding will happen emotions are heightened.

“When things go wrong it is natural to look for someone or something to blame, and when there is a national crisis such as this, the government can certainly be a focus for the anger and frustration.

“For some people the anger builds up to a point where they may choose to take the law into their own hands, and behave recklessly due to strong emotion and a need to try and regain control,” she said.

How load shedding affects the healthcare industry

Power cuts and a lack of a contingency plan could result in catastrophic consequences in a healthcare environment.

Mothudi said that while there is an attempt, at least in many of the centres, to have backup services when there is load shedding, there may be some places where these services are not operating at optimum.

Generators in hospitals or healthcare environments that fail to work can lead to devastating consequences.

“In instances where they have planned surgery and there’s load shedding it may mean that scheduled procedures will be pushed forward.

“That may not always be the case in well-to-do do areas but in far-flung places some of the backup services may not be working when there is load shedding,” he said.

In instances where patients are on oxygen, the concentrator is that they use would require electricity.

Those who use these concentrators at home may face a critical problem when stage 6 load shedding impacts 10 or more hours of using the machine.

How to power up when the lights are off

When the lights go off, one can experience a sense of helplessness. Kemp says in these moments, we are forced to adapt and make a plan.

“I’d encourage everyone to check their schedules and prepare accordingly – what meals could one prepare without access to power, what could one do to entertain themselves during those hours?”

It’s important to use the time during power cuts to keep ourselves stimulated, he said, and it could be used as an opportunity to connect with family.

“Boredom is a feeling many find to be intolerable, and its impact on our mental health shouldn’t be understated or dismissed,” he said.

Turner is a health and environmental multimedia journalist

This article is original to The African. To republish, see terms and conditions.