SEASIDE, Oregon — Africa’s mental health care has always been an area of concern for the community. In the early 2000s, mental illness in Africa started to become more visible. With Africa’s 49% increase in population between 2000-2015, there was a 52% increase in the number of mental and substance use disorders. Unfortunately, with the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic, Africa’s struggle to acquire mental health care is lacking. This makes Africa’s mental health program nearly as important as infectious and parasitic diseases. There is hope with the arrival of new technology to help Africa’s mental health care during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Africa’s Struggle with Mental Health
With Africa’s population expected to double in the next three decades, those who live there will have a lot more pressure on them to work in competitive labor markets. They will be more likely to develop psychological problems. Prior to COVID-19, Africa was already “underperforming in several key mental health metrics.” With all the other issues Africa faces, such as maternity mortality, infectious diseases and poverty, mental health had been overlooked.
Already facing physical barriers in providing mental health care, other obstacles, such as stigma, low knowledge and beliefs that mental illnesses cannot be cured, have all played a role in preventing proper mental health care to those who need it in Africa. Many doctors even turn away from psychiatry due to the stigma surrounding it.
COVID-19 Amplifies the Problem
With mental health already an area of concern in Africa, the COVID-19 crisis has only inflated the problem. Africa’s mental health care during COVID-19 is in high demand as the pandemic has caused mental health problems for those who may not have had a history with such issues.
In May, Africa Disease Control and Prevention issued guidance for mental health and psychosocial support during the COVID-19 pandemic. It provided practical steps to help reduce stress, anxiety, depression and other mental health symptoms that COVID-19 or other underlying disorders could cause.
Isolation is one of the number one causes of mental illnesses and certainly doesn’t help those already mentally ill. During COVID-19, people have faced increased isolation and loneliness. Before COVID-19, healthcare in Africa was scarce. Many people had to drive two hours or longer to the nearest hospital. The struggle it takes for patients to reach care deters the motivation to seek it.
Solutions in Sight
While hospitals are reopening, there is still a long way to go before Africa can provide the proper mental health care. As appointment times and beds have to be spaced out, many patients won’t receive therapy until early 2021.
However, before, COVID-19 patients were required to visit the hospital for their appointments. Now, this crisis has forced a new solution. Africa is exploring virtual options. Africa is opening up to telemedicine. Not only will utilizing virtual care options provide mental health care to more people in Africa but it will also help Africa’s lack of mental health professionals. Now, countries can outsource to other providers around the world.
“Across Africa, mental health tech startups including Wazi in Kenya, PsyndUp in Nigeria, MindIT in Ghana and the MEGA project in South Africa and Zambia” are working to provide “free virtual online mental health consultations.” Programs like these have helped doctors treat “50 to 175 times the patients” previously seen.
Africa’s mental health care stance has been weak in the past. The arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic only reduced the motivation to seek out mental health help. With technology and the arrival of telemedicine, Africa’s mental health care has advanced in order to combat changes due to COVID-19. The next step is to improve the needed technology to provide better access to remote villages in Africa.
– McKenzie Daniel