South Africa has long endured a high prevalence of mental disorders at the national level, and its unique social and historical context could be a contributor to an increased risk of mental health problems. Our current understanding is limited regarding the relative importance of various social determinants to mental health challenges in South Africa, and how existing racial inequities may be explained by these determinants.
This study attempted to elucidate potential social determinants of mental health in South Africa using data from the nationally representative South African National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (SANHANES-1). The main outcome of interest was psychological distress, measured with the Kessler-10 scale. Hierarchical linear regression models included covariates for demographic and socioeconomic factors, count of traumatic events, and a series of stress-related constructs. Analyses were conducted on two populations: the entire sample (n = 15,981), and the African subpopulation (n = 10,723).
Regression models on the entire sample indicated racial disparities in psychological distress, with Africans experiencing higher distress than White and Coloured individuals. Results within the African sub-population indicated geo-spatial disparities, with Africans in formal urban settings experiencing higher psychological distress than those living in formal and informal rural locales. Across both samples, results indicated a cumulative association between count of stressors and traumatic events and distress.
We found racial disparities across several mental health-related domains. Africans had greater exposure to traumatic events, social stressors, and psychological distress. This research is a necessary foundation for public health interventions and policy change to effectively reduce inequities in psychological distress.