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Monday 16 March 2015:

Respect for human rights can boost psychological wellbeing

On Saturday, 21 March South Africans across the board will celebrate the country’s Bill of Rights which is enshrined in the South African Constitution and legally protects the basic human rights of every individual living in this land. Alas, despite the Bill’s promise of protection, a significant number of South Africans, for various reasons, are still denied their human rights, which, more often than not, may result in a number of psychological disorders, even suicidal thoughts.

The impact of human rights on sense of self

“Human rights play a monumental role in a person’s sense of self, interaction style and sense of purpose in the world, says Tamryn Coats, counselling psychologist and researcher at Akeso Specialised Psychiatric Clinics.

She goes on to explain that human rights are “one of those abstract concepts that unfortunately doesn’t fully resonate until it’s no longer present. For example, people often undervalue their privilege and social positioning in society until something happens that makes them lose a part of it. Only then can they recognise the power and influence human rights have on their daily experiences.”

A case in point is the freedom of religious expression. “This is a democratic right that we may not notice until we find ourselves in a community or context that denies that freedom and in doing so, denies our human rights. This stirs up emotions of frustration, anger or vulnerability which will begin to shape how we interact with people in that community and how we either see ourselves as part of that community, or not. In this way human rights are the foundation of creating societal boundaries; boundaries that protect us, that give us structure, and an identity that define the ‘us’ from ‘them’.”

Similarly, the events at Sharpeville on 21 March 1960 - when 69 people died and 180 were wounded after police fired on a crowd that had gathered to show their solidarity against the pass laws – not only are a stark reminder of the violation of the human rights for some groups of people at the hands of other human beings; it swelled the tide of negative emotion against the apartheid regime.

Collective belonging

The rights you may have in South Africa are not necessarily the same as those of another country, and in this way human rights allow us to create ties that bind us to one another in a sense of collective identification and belonging, Coats adds.

“ It is through this understanding that we can begin to understand how human rights issues can create huge conflict and opposing groups within society, as each group wants to protect their own rights and their own perception of ’normal’. The United Nations works toward reducing this capacity for conflict by creating universal human rights to protect and serve the best interest of all people and not just one sub-group or community within society.”  

Identifying the violation of human rights and its psychological effects

Very often people are not aware of what their rights are, because they have no basic information about those rights or even to what is deemed to be the supreme law of the country, the Constitution. However, the psychological experience to injustice or the denial of rights or oppression, leaves a person with a clear sense of distress: which is experienced emotionally and in the body. It may bring about feelings of anger, hurt, outrage or sadness,” explains private practice clinical psychologist Bradley Daniels.
Coats agrees and says that the violation of a person’s rights will always be felt by the victim more easily and personally than by the perpetrator. Unfortunately in some contexts the victim may feel that what is occurring isn’t right but they lack either the education or the resources to challenge the offender appropriately.

“In South Africa, for example, the lack of employment and financial strain many individuals experience, has contributed towards employees tolerating substandard working conditions in which their human rights are not respected, yet they won’t contest this because they fear it may result in unemployment which for them, would be a worse off situation.

At the same time, the emergence of micro prejudice has gained vast attention in recent years as a phenomenon that seems to be infiltrating daily life in democratic countries, says Coats. An example would be the ways in which shop assistants would subtly follow black persons around an upper class clothing stores, suggesting that by virtue of physical characteristics, possibly race and gender, they shouldn’t be trusted. “These daily experiences may culminate in a person feeling that they are ’less than’ others, and thus contribute to a low self-esteem of the development of various psychological conditions,” says Coats.

Psychological disorders

“The most obvious experience that injustice brings to the person it is directed at, is a form of stress. If we look at instances of human rights violation the most common identifiable phenomenon that we as psychologists can record, is that it causes distress,” says Daniels.

“The distress or merely stress caused by the situation may not always lead to an identifiable and diagnosable mental disorder. However, the way in which people are psychologically structured may determine whether consistent stress leads to more serious mental health outcomes such as depression, anxiety, acute stress disorder or other forms of adjustment disorders,” he explains.

Depending on the nature of the violation of rights, several psychological conditions or traits may arise from a disrespect for or denial of a person’s human rights, Coats adds.

  • Depression symptoms may occur as the person feels constantly rejected by society, unwanted or isolated.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms may occur if there is an incident of violent crime against the person which relates to their identity or the group to which they belong, for example instances of xenophobia which have flared up across the country and caused people from other African countries, like Somalia and Nigeria, much hardship and despair.
  • Likewise, as a result of gender-based violence which occurs in many a household and which also negates a woman’s human rights, anxiety levels may increase to the point of a disorder, and if the person is constantly worried something may happen to themselves or someone they love.
  • Low self-esteem leading to depression and reclusive tendencies can often result from a violation of human rights especially when the person starts to believe the negative and degrading messages society may be telling them about themselves or the group they associate with.
    This, again, may be the result of small, often unnoticed, forms of prejudice (micro prejudice) that people use on a daily rate, for example, when a white person compliments a black person on speaking English well, thereby implying that he/she isn’t expected to have such an articulate and non-accented command over the English language.

The culmination of the above factors may lead a person to believe that life is too hard, that they can’t cope or that they don’t belong and therefore they may begin to contemplate or attempt suicide, says Coats.

Instilling respect for human rights

According to Coats, respecting difference and embracing diversity is a continuous challenge for society, for various reasons. Yet it is possible and necessary, Coats and Daniels agree.

“There are so many complexities in understanding human behaviour, however I do believe respect for others can be taught, but it is taught through observation and actions, it is taught best at a young age and it is taught primarily through experiential learning,” says Coats.

According to her, the more you interact with people who are different from you, the more you able to find similarities and learn from their difference, and the less inclined you are to make sweeping generalizations that have racist or prejudice undertones. “In this way, you are taught how people can be different FOR one another rather than FROM one another and this is the foundation for developing a diverse democratic society.”

Daniels says the first step to training people about human rights is to educate them about their rights and responsibilities. “This is a clear instance in which basic legal education and training can systematically reduce the incidence of human rights violations.
      “Very often educating a population about their rights significantly reduces the incidence of violations and thereby leads to a healthier, happy community who are mentally and emotionally stable. This can happen in earlier institutions such as the family or schooling, or during later interventions when offenders are rehabilitated in correctional facilities,” he stresses.

Concluding, Coats advises that people who are feeling isolated, or overwhelmed and in distress for any reason, especially if they feel that their human rights are not being respected, should  visit the Akeso website .

About Akeso Clinics

Akeso Clinics is a group of private in-patient psychiatric clinics that prides itself on providing individual, integrated and family-oriented treatment for a range of psychiatric, psychological and addictive conditions. Akeso Clinics offer specialised in-patient treatment facilities.
Please visit www.akeso.co.za or contact us on 011 447 0268 for further information.
In the event of a psychological crisis, please call 0861 4357 87 for assistance.


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