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Tackling mental health crisis


Tackling mental health crisis

Thursday June 01 2023

Participants march in a procession to mark World Mental Health Awareness Month along Tom Mboya Street, Nairobi on May 6, 2023. PHOTO | BONFACE BOGITA | NMG

As a young boy in the village, I often met people who were considered mentally unstable. We knew them by name and treated them with kindness, as long as they did not pose a threat.

However, today, mental health crises have become a major concern in Africa, and it calls for urgent action.

A recent report from the World Health Organisation (WHO) says Africa currently has the highest suicide rate globally, surpassing the global average.

Six out of 10 nations with the highest suicide rates worldwide are located on the continent.

Furthermore, the number of people affected by mental health issues in Africa has increased from 53 million in 1990 to a staggering 116 million today.

These alarming statistics highlight the urgent need to change our approach to mental health issues and urge our leaders to address associated risk factors in Africa.

Unfortunately, despite the rising prevalence, cultural beliefs and misconceptions surrounding the disease persist, preventing many, especially young people, from accessing essential healthcare services.

Some communities attribute mental disorders to witchcraft, curses, or demonic possession, perpetuating misunderstanding and hindering proper attention.

The stigma associated with mental health issues further exacerbates the problem, as individuals fear discrimination and social exclusion.

Consequently, many, especially young people, turn to technology for support. However, while technology can provide some assistance, it cannot replace the need for proper mental healthcare services.

Current research suggests that high rates of mental health issues in Africa can be linked to income inequality, poverty, and unemployment.

These socioeconomic factors contribute to increased stress levels and a lack of adequate social support systems, placing individuals at a higher risk of mental health problems.

Additionally, countries experiencing conflict, political instability, and displacement often have higher incidences of mental health issues, including trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder.

One of the major challenges in addressing the crisis in Africa is the lack of resources, infrastructure, and trained mental health professionals.

Limited access to mental healthcare services makes it difficult for individuals to seek help, receive a proper diagnosis, and access treatment.

This situation is particularly prevalent in rural areas, where healthcare facilities are scarce, leaving a large portion of the population without adequate support.

Furthermore, rapid urbanisation and changing lifestyles in African cities have contributed to the worsening of the mental health crisis.

Increased stress levels, social isolation, and inadequate social support systems that accompany urbanisation have a profound impact on mental well-being.

Consequently, urban areas often face a higher prevalence of mental health issues compared to rural regions.

Despite the severity of the mental health crisis, only a few African countries have implemented formal mental health policies.

While many have made promises to develop such policies, they have failed to act on them due to limited resources and insufficient commitment from stakeholders.

Additionally, mental health has not been adequately connected with its impact on economic growth.

As a continent with the highest population of mentally challenged people globally, it is crucial for Africa to invest in mental health care.

Governments, policymakers, and stakeholders need to prioritise mental health and allocate sufficient resources to address this pressing issue.

The WHO report blames governments for underinvestment in providing appropriate mental health services in Africa.

Governments typically spend less than 50 cents per person on mental health, which, although an improvement from the 10 US cents in 2017, still falls far below the recommended $2 per capita for low-income countries.

Furthermore, national health insurance programs often do not cover mental health services.

To combat the mental health crisis in Africa, comprehensive actions are needed, including promoting Mental Health Awareness throughout the continent.

Communities should be educated about mental health to dispel myths and reduce stigma.

Governments should prioritise the development of mental healthcare infrastructure by ensuring that enough facilities are available and accessible to all.

This includes training and deploying a skilled mental health workforce across different regions.

Given the inadequate local capacities, governments and stakeholders should collaborate and invest in mental health initiatives in Africa, providing the necessary resources and support for comprehensive interventions.

The writer is Kenya’s Ambassador to Belgium, Mission to the European Union, Organization of African Caribbean and Pacific States and World Customs Organization. The article is written at a personal level.