Continuous high levels of stress, also known as toxic stress, is one of the leading contributors of many mental disorders among South Africans. This is especially detrimental for pregnant women and caregivers of young children, as it is significantly harmful to the developing infant brain.
During pregnancy, the cortisol hormone released by a highly stressed mother can adversely affect the brain of the growing foetus. After birth, high levels of caregiver stress trigger a similar response in the baby’s brain, with lifelong implications for the child’s mental health, learning, and social functioning.
Unfortunately, those living in low-resourced areas bear a higher risk due to limited access to resources, inadequate psychological support, and the stigma surrounding mental illness. This discourages them from seeking the help they need.
In light of this issue, interventions and services are needed to dismantle this narrative and support caregivers in low-resourced areas. By doing so, their mental health can be improved, leading to thriving children from an early age.
A Mental Health Solution for Caregivers in Alexandra Township
Alexandra township in Johannesburg serves as an example where access to mental health services is a challenge. Recognising this issue, Ububele, an NGO based just outside of Alexandra, stepped in to provide a solution. Through their interventions and training programmes, they offer support to pregnant women and caregivers of young children aged zero to two – the first 1 000 days of a young child’s life. This is a critical period of most rapid brain growth for the child that is bolstered by the environment, especially when it comes to affectionate and responsive interactions with adults.
Ububele firmly believes that with proper support, families are more likely to meet their children’s needs, and well-supported children are more likely to thrive. With this motto, nothing could stop them when the Covid-19 pandemic struck South Africa in 2020. Although the lockdown restrictions prevented them from conducting some of their face-to-face interventions, including workshops, hospital consultations and home visits, they came up with a solution to engage their audience online.
With financial support from Innovation Edge, the Ububele team launched the VUNA parenting club. This initiative allowed them to adapt their services and focus on accessing and supporting caregivers in new ways. Using WhatsApp as a communication platform, they engaged with caregivers, informing them of the importance of quality care in the first 1 000 days of the child. They also shared valuable information on mental health, infant development in high-stress situations, as well as the basket of services Ububele offers.
Even when the lockdown restrictions were lifted, the platform continued to provide a vital service to Ububele’s clients. It enabled the team to reach and support more caregivers and expand their impact.
Ultimately, VUNA aims to create an environment where children are well-cared for and grow up to be emotionally healthy adults, competent caregivers, and active citizens.
How Does VUNA Work?
VUNA is open and free to any pregnant woman or caregiver of children up to two years old who reside in Alexandra.
Twice a week, the VUNA team, supported by an in-house psychologist, creates and sends out visual materials with text messages via WhatsApp. These messages include tips, updates, invitations and reminders to workshops, as well as psycho-educational information about improving mental health. The content is available in English, Sepedi, isiZulu, and Xitsonga. Additionally, intern psychologists are available for online consultations on Thursdays, while the clinical admin team is on standby to answer any questions sent by caregivers to VUNA’s WhatsApp chat. Caregivers are informed and reminded about these services through WhatsApp.
Joining VUNA is easy. Caregivers simply need to save the VUNA club phone number ( 064 700 8549) and send a WhatsApp message with the word “JOIN”. After answering a few questions about themselves and their baby or pregnancy, they are signed up for the relevant sub-group. These sub-groups include parents, fathers, pregnant women, parents with babies who have been or are admitted to a hospital, and partners who refer clients to VUNA. Each group receives messages tailored to their needs.
Supporting Caregivers and Creating an Impact
Since its establishment, VUNA has already garnered 948 caregivers on their platform. In 2022, the VUNA team conducted a survey to gauge caregiver satisfaction and the effectiveness of their programme. Out of the 38 caregivers who participated, 37 expressed that they found the messages sent to them helpful.
Some caregivers shared their positive experiences with VUNA:
“What I love about VUNA is that you are just a phone call away firstly. It helps resolve the battle of self-fight a parent faces. It ensures that we are well prepared to be hands-on with our babies. It also helps with mental health a parent can face. I can say it also unpacks the aspect and qualities of a good parent; and lastly but not least, it has taught me to be easy on myself. Self-care is important as you cannot give from an empty cup. The list is endless… VUNA is the best!!!” – VUNA Mom.
“I love this service because I feel safe when I am talking to you right now and I know you will be helpful.” – VUNA Mom
“What I love about VUNA is that they are always there when you need to talk to someone. They always hear you out. I wish VUNA to help people themselves not to refer them to somewhere. E.g. When you are struggling to buy basic things for your baby you are referred to go ask at [organisation name withheld]. We fail to go there because one day we were mocked for always asking for food or pampers for kids.” – VUNA Mom
While VUNA is a free service for the Alexandra community, the truth is, nothing is for free – someone is paying. Although the initial funding came from Innovation Edge, the club continues to operate beyond our support. If you want to contribute, you can pay for the messages that the team sends out to caregivers on a weekly basis. Click here for more information.
Mental health is a serious issue, and continuous innovation is necessary to support caregivers who lack or have limited access to mental health services. By ensuring the well-being of caregivers, we enhance their ability to support young children effectively, setting them up for success from an early age. At Innovation Edge, we are always seeking solutions to empower and improve the lives of caregivers and young children. Feel free to reach out to us or learn more about our impact areas. Together, we can make a difference.
Author: Dimpho Lephaila – Communications Associate at Innovation Edge