KENYA — In October the World Health Organization (WHO) hosted a forum on global mental health that was attended by nearly 40 Member States and 150 participants from United Nations agencies, foundations, NGOs, academic and research institutions and WHO Collaborating Centres.
A key topic concerned the uptake of innovation into mental health policy and the focus was on dignity in mental health, reflecting the theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day.
Finding mental health care in Africa can be challenging for people who suffer from conditions such as depression, bipolar disorder or schizophrenia due to persistent problems of shame, stigma and a lack of patients’ rights.
In Kenya, a young woman named Sitawa Wafula, who is campaigning for change in her country’s mental health system, says mental health is “one of those tabooed topics.” She told the website Mental Healthy, that there are many myths in her country about the causes of mental illness, mainly that it is the result of witchcraft.
Wafula herself has struggled with mental illness and knows firsthand the difficulties people face trying to find treatment. There is virtually no care for those living in rural areas, she says, while people who can access treatment in cities, such as Nairobi, must be able to financially afford it. In her case, she had to drop out of school because her family spent its resources on doctor’s visits and medication.
In nearby Uganda, care for mental illness is likewise difficult to access and stigmatization is also a problem. Joseph Atukunda told BBC News that he once suffered from severe depression that caused him to contemplate suicide. He later learned that he had Bipolar Affective Disorder.
Uganda has only 30 psychiatrists in a country of more than 35 million people. BBC reports that WHO estimates that 90 percent of people in Uganda never receive treatment for mental health problems.
Atukunda made it to the country’s only psychiatric hospital, called Butabika, where six psychiatrists looked after hundreds of patients. He now works as an advocate for better mental health services in his country.
In regions that have experienced traumatic conditions, there are many people needing mental health care in Africa. Countries such as Sierra Leone and Libya are flooded with people who suffer from symptoms of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after experiencing prolonged violence and deadly epidemics.
In Sierra Leone, the last decade has brought a brutal civil war and the Ebola outbreak. Dr. Edward Nahim, the country’s only psychiatrist, told The Sierra Leone Telegraph that the civil conflict and the Ebola outbreak have resulted in serious psychological problems such as PTSD, psychosis and depression.
“Mental health problems fall into two main categories with a certain overlap,” he said. “The first category includes traditional mental health problems seen in any country, rich or poor and in peace or conflict.”
“The second group includes special problems related to conflict, post conflict context with exposure to potentially traumatic events and lack of protective factors to contain these events, due to severe social distress caused by poverty, general hardship, bad nutrition and physical health problems.”
In Libya, the groups Doctors Without Borders and International Medical Corps have been working to provide mental health treatment to the many people suffering from conflict-related conditions.
Although some have argued that Western groups can do more harm than good by entering other regions and imposing their methods and treatments, the two aid organizations told TIME magazine that they try to be culturally sensitive and work collaboratively with local providers.
In 2013, the World Health Assembly approved a “Comprehensive Mental Health Action Plan for 2013-2020,” that includes specific actions for all World Health Organization member states to improve mental health and to contribute to the attainment of a set of global targets.
According to the WHO website, the Action Plan’s overall goal is to promote mental well-being, prevent mental disorders, provide care, enhance recovery, promote human rights and reduce the mortality, morbidity and disability for persons with mental disorders. For many in Africa, these changes would come as a welcome relief.