By Amy Glover and Dr Olivia Matshabane.

Supportive psychotherapy is one method which could help many South Africans to cope with the mental health stresses experienced due to COVID-19.

What is supportive psychotherapy?

Supportive psychotherapy plays an active and directive role in helping an individual improve their functioning. The focus of this type of therapy is on improving behaviour, enhancing self-esteem and promoting positive subjective feelings. Supportive psychotherapy can help to reduce anxiety, promote better stress management and improve healthier use of one’s psychic defenses. It uses techniques which are empirically tested and evidence-based in order to enhance an individual’s strengths, coping skills, and capacity to use social supports while reducing their subjective distress and behavioural functioning. Supportive psychotherapy can also be used to assist people who have existing psychiatric diagnoses to gain a degree of practical independence and to foster their autonomy in treatment decisions. While this form of therapy can be used in cases where there is a known diagnosis, it is also effective in cases where individuals have symptoms that could indicate distress but do not necessarily meet the criteria for a mental illness. This is to say that supportive psychotherapy can also be used to help people cope with everyday stresses.

Why is supportive psychotherapy increasingly needed during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Now more than ever before, the harsh realities of injustice and inequality have become evident for all of society to see. During these challenging times with multiple restrictions on our lives, many people have lost their jobs and as a result are struggling to feed their families and cope with everyday life. It is estimated that the pandemic will result in millions of people around the world being pushed to extreme poverty. In the South African context, we have been flooded with news about the disturbingly high levels of poverty which have increased exponentially since the onset of the pandemic. Some people are understandably experiencing increased anxiety about their job security and about the future. The education system has shifted to online learning, which has also caused some anxiety amongst students and educators. Senior learners have been requested to return to schools – and this decision has also caused anxiety amongst parents, educators and learners. Healthcare workers and essential staff have also expressed increased anxiety as they are continuing to serve our society while their own lives and those of their family members are at increased risk. Many people are isolated on their own in their houses and feeling bored and lonely. Some are isolated in cities or countries which are far from home without means to return. Other people are spending more time with family members than they ever have before. Being around the same people 24/7 has also been reported to take an emotional toll on relationships. Additionally, most professionals are now working from home and having to split their time between helping children with homeschooling, housework (i.e. including cooking, cleaning and laundry) and meeting their work deadlines. Understandably so, in addition to the uncertainties of the pandemic and the very real fears about how it could impact our health and the health of our loved ones, many people are experiencing escalating levels of stress and anxiety. These transient emotional disruptions can be profound and given the unpredictability of when the pandemic will end; these disturbances may likely be prolonged. This unfortunately creates fertile grounds for our lives and our mental health to be impacted, given there is no clarity around when things could restabilize. 

In addition to the environmental effects of COVID-19 which themselves need processing; people are also dealing with multiple psychological challenges. One of these includes the decrease in physical touch; in person human interaction and connection. People have turned to finding new ways to continue engaging socially despite the social distancing regulations. Many people have shifted to virtual platforms for meetings – including both professional and social meetings. Even though these platforms have been beneficial to some extent, many have reported these virtual meetings to be somewhat exhausting. Despite those feelings however, the upsurge in the use of technology to communicate is a clear sign of how we are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively and spiritually ‘hardwired for connection’. Connection is an indispensable commodity which boosts our functioning. Not being able to physically meet friends, family and colleagues has taken a toll on many people. As author and researcher Brené Brown says, “true belonging, real connection and real empathy require meeting real people in real space in real time”. We are all longing for that kind of connection but can not receive it during this unprecedented time and that has an impact on our psychological well-being. One method we could use to help us cope with our sudden reality could be supportive psychotherapy.

How can supportive psychotherapy help?

Supportive psychotherapy can be helpful to consider as it can be provided both online or in person. One need not have to wait for a specific diagnosis to engage in this type of therapy. This approach to therapy focuses on the client and improving adaptive skills; meaning how you cope in times of stress using the skills you already have. Sometimes having a space to process and receive reassurance and encouragement can help one recognize what it is that you DO have and that can make an incredible difference in the reduction of anxiety and in one’s view of a problem. Your therapist would only use this approach if it is suitable to you but it can help in getting advice, an objective opinion and learning to reframe and name a problem that you might be facing. This tends to improve your agency and make one feel more empowered to address what they are facing with better awareness of what it is. 

Supportive psychotherapy can also in this way help individuals who seek it to feel more in control of their lives and serves to prevent future mental health challenges if there is early intervention. The goal and the focus is on wellness and not illness. A final thought on how this approach can help is that it also need not take on a long or an in-depth structural process which may not suit many South Africans in terms of availability to attend weekly sessions or finances. 

A broader impact that this approach could have is to normalize seeking support, since we still find many South Africans fear mental health professionals or seeking help and this approach can be non-threatening and accessible to many. Of course, like any therapy it will not work for everyone but it could certainly help many people have a positive experience of therapy and seek support prior to more severe challenges or crises; making it easier to address and intervene. Supportive psychotherapy is one method which could help many South Africans to cope with the mental health stresses experienced due to COVID-19.

How can one access supportive psychotherapy?

1. You can visit or contact your trusted GP, local doctor or mental health nurse at local clinics and ask if they have any trusted referrals.

2. You can google your area for psychologists, usually you will get a range of results and direct websites of practitioners to browse – most of us you can call or email directly to book an appointment or will reach our practice managers if we are busy. Don’t be afraid to ask about rates, medical aid rates, cash rates or if the practitioner has any reduced rate offerings.

3. Try TherapyRoute – you can find a therapist near you, this is a great South African platform with good search parameters.

4. You can try Psychology Today, many psychologists listed here.

5. Try Medpages, many medical and mental health professionals listed here.

6. Try Therapists Online; again you can search professionals here.

7. Search Therapist Directory, here you can find psychologists and counsellors in SA.

8. Search Findhelp; here you can browse through listed psychologists, therapists, social workers, occupational therapists, psychiatrists, and counsellors.

Additional Mental Health Resources

Rape Crisis

Cape Mental Health

South African Depression and Anxiety Group

7 Cups of Tea : connect to affordable online therapy

Centre for Interactive Mental Health Solutions

ICAS – Company wellness programme, available to many large companies.

Woodstock R50 clinic

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Amy Glover is a practicing Clinical Psychologist based in Cape Town. She has her masters degree in Clinical Psychology and Community Counselling (cum laude) from the University of Stellenbosch. She divides her time between a private practice in Vredehoek, Cape Town and developing practitioner-led resources to equip professionals to navigate online platforms for mental health services. She is passionate about preventative mental health and works with individuals and couples. Amy Glover is available to see clients online for therapy. Email: amygloverpsychologist@gmail.com or contact here.

Dr Olivia Matshabane has a PhD in Medicine and a Masters degree in Psychology. She is a lecturer in social and developmental psychology at the University of Cape Town. She is also a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Medicine at UCT. She is trained in psychology, ethics and genomics. Her research focuses on the ethical and psychosocial implications of genomics research on African populations. She is passionate about promoting mental and public health for all.

This article is written based on the personal views of the authors and does not reflect the views of any institution.

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