A new online platform designed to make mental health support and therapy accessible to as many people as possible was launched in South Africa at the start of the country’s Mental Illness Awareness Month in July.

Called Obuntu (www.obuntu.co.za), it was developed by IT entrepreneur Pieter Oosthuizen, who says the idea for the platform was inspired by the experience of his sister, Anelia, who has long waged a personal battle with depression and anxiety.

“Getting the help and support you need for any mental health condition is never easy, even in the best of times. The benefit of joining a support group has been widely recognised by mental health professionals around the world. However, the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown has made joining a support group even more difficult while the need has never been greater,” he says.

A survey conducted by the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) in April last year found that depression and anxiety reached record highs during the early days of the Covid-19 lockdown with 59% of survey participants previously diagnosed with a mental health condition reporting that the pandemic had exacerbated an existing crisis.

“Working with my sister, we started developing a platform that would enable anyone wanting to join any type of support group for a mental health condition or for life coaching generally to do so in a way that’s convenient, secure and affordable. It has also been designed to protect their privacy by allowing them to hide their identity from the host and other group members should they choose to do so,” Oosthuizen adds.

The credentials of all therapy providers and coaches – hosts – are carefully checked before being onboarded to the platform and allowed to take on group members or individual clients. This includes verifying their qualifications and/or registration with their relevant professional or statutory body such as the Health Professions Council of South Africa.

“Deciding to join a therapy session isn’t always an easy decision, albeit a very important one. With our online groups, users can subscribe to a group and join as many of the available sessions as they like. The nature of each group, and the content of each session, and the cost to sign up, is clearly set out on the Obuntu site,” Oosthuizen explains.

The 60-minute sessions are conducted via Zoom or Google Hangouts, with the number of participants for each group session determined by the host and clearly indicted in the group profile. “We have also made it easy for hosts to focus on what really matters to them – helping clients – with built-in features that enable them to remain in full control of their schedules and to communicate with their groups quickly and easily. Approved hosts simply create their groups, add sessions, and start helping their members.”

At present, Obuntu is only available on PC, but apps for iOS and Android are in the process of being developed.

“While the platform is currently only geared to supporting South African-based therapists and coaches, our goal is to roll it out to the rest of Africa and thus bring mental health support to people across the continent where the need is enormous,” Oosthuizen concludes.