Original Research

The burden of untreated mental disorders in KwaZulu-Natal Province – mapping the treatment gap

Jonathan K Burns
South African Journal of Psychiatry | Vol 20, No 1 | a499 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.4102/sajpsychiatry.v20i1.499 | © 2014 Jonathan K Burns | This work is licensed under CC Attribution 4.0
Submitted: 27 September 2013 | Published: 30 April 2014

About the author(s)

Jonathan K Burns, Department of Psychiatry, Nelson R Mandela School of Medicine, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa, South Africa

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Background. Low- and middle-income countries carry the major burden of mental disorders, yet owing to a significant lack of resources, they experience a ‘treatment gap’ in the range of 75 - 85%.

Methods. Epidemiological data on mental disorders in South Africa, national census data and locally developed models for establishing treatment needs were used to calculate expected annual acute admissions and inpatient care, as well as expected annual ambulatory visits in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Province, South Africa. These were compared with actual acute admission and inpatient care rates as well as actual ambulatory visits to mental health services in the province, derived from the District Health Information Systems. These comparisons allowed an estimation of the treatment gap for mental disorders in the province.

Results. Approximately 956 000 adults were estimated to live with mental disorders in KZN. Only 19.8% (10 620) of expected admissions (53 623) took place during the one-year reporting period; while the total number of acute inpatient days accounted for 26.1% of the expected number. Average length of stay (ALOS) for acute admissions was longer (21 days) than the expected ALOS (16 days). At the recommended level of 30% coverage, ambulatory visits to mental health facilities accounted for 21% of the expected visits during the one-year period.

Conclusion. In keeping with previous estimates, these results provide evidence that the ‘treatment gap’ for acute inpatient and ambulatory mental healthcare in KZN is ~80%. This rate is similar to the estimated mental health resource gap in the province, suggesting that gross inadequacies in mental health service provision translate directly into major unmet needs for those living with mental disorders.


mental disorders; treatment gap; mental health services; epidemiology


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