Has pandemic raised South Africans’ stress levels by 56%? And is cannabis the answer? Two claims in news article checked

The author of the article told Africa Check that the statistic came from an online survey of 1,200 people about the mental health impact of Covid-19 in 2020. 

The survey was conducted by Pharma Dynamics, a Cape Town-headquartered firm that sells pharmaceuticals said to manage the symptoms of anxiety and other illnesses.

The survey results are summarised in a news briefing on the company’s website with a headline similar to the Citizen’s: “South Africans’ stress levels have shot up by 56% since start of pandemic according to survey.” 

56% increase is not supported by survey results

Pharma Dynamics sent Africa Check the survey questions, which included two on levels of stress, and some of the results. 

The first question asked participants to select which “areas of life” the pandemic had impacted. One of these was labelled “experienced higher levels of psychological and emotional distress than before”. Of the people surveyed, 56.2% (or 689 people) indicated that they experienced this. In other words, 56% of the people in the survey said they had experienced higher levels of distress.

Another question asked participants: “Has your stress level increased since the start of the pandemic?” Here, 57% of participants said “yes”, 29% said “somewhat” and 13% said “no”.  

But neither of these results support the claim that stress levels in South Africa “increased by 56%”. 

Africa Check spoke to Debbie Kaminer from the University of Cape Town’s Department of Psychology, who has published several articles on anxiety and related mental health issues in South Africa. 

She confirmed that on the basis of this survey “we can’t conclude that stress levels have risen by 56%”, but only that this share of participants “perceived that their stress levels were higher during the pandemic than before”.   

To determine changes to stress levels during the pandemic, another survey of stress levels would need to have been done before the pandemic, and these results then compared with the current survey results. This would allow any changes in stress levels to be measured.

Survey results not representative of South Africa’s population

But there’s another problem with the survey. The results – that 56% of people surveyed said they were experiencing more stress – are not representative of South Africa. 

A spokesperson from Pharma Dynamics’ PR company said the survey was advertised online. They did not ensure that the people who completed the survey were representative of the larger South African population in terms of race, gender, age, class or other demographic traits. (Note: Learn more about why this is important here.

This means the results are unlikely to apply to people outside of the study. In other words, it is not accurate to make a claim about the larger South African population based on the results from this sample. 

“Given the platform on which the survey was distributed, we can expect it may not be fully representative of, for example, non-English language speakers or those without resources to access online sites,” Kaminer said.

Lack of South African research on pandemic and stress 

Other research has looked into the mental health impact of the pandemic. For example, the World Health Organization recently reported that globally, there were 25% more cases of anxiety disorders in 2020 than there were before the pandemic. 

But researchers caution that little data from low- and middle-income countries was included and results may not be applicable to those places.  

There is also a dearth of South African research on the topic. Kaminer told Africa Check she was “not aware of any studies that have compared stress levels in South Africans pre and post pandemic”. 

A South African study by the Human Sciences Research Council looked at over 12,000 people at the beginning of the pandemic and found that 60% of them had reported being “frequently stressed”, with 45% “scared”. 

This does not give an indication of increases in stress, but does reveal the prevalence of stress. The data in the survey was weighted to make it representative of the South African population.

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