ONTARIO, Canada — Holly Elliott, external engagement coordinator from StrongMinds, explains to The Borgen Project how improving mental health can create positive generational change.
The Impact of COVID-19 on Mental Health
The COVID-19 pandemic has not only brought to the forefront the urgency for resilient healthcare systems but also the urgency of addressing mental health issues, an aspect of health often overlooked during crises.
Interestingly, in an October 2021 study by the Lancet medical journal, researchers completed a meta-analysis of the most recent data on the prevalence of depression and anxiety during the COVID-19 pandemic from January 2020 to January 2021. A daily chart published on October 11, 2021, by The Economist summarizes the Lancet’s findings in graphic terms, indicating that global incidents of depression increased by 53 million due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This figure points to an increase of 28% in comparison to pre-pandemic depression levels.
The urgency to combat depression has heightened, becoming a global priority in part due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Recognizing that “depression is a leading cause of disability worldwide and is a major contributor to the overall global burden of disease,” the World Health Organization (WHO), states that “the time to act is now to empower communities and individuals to attain the highest standard of health, which can only be achieved when their mental health and well-being is ensured.”
Depression in Sub-Saharan Africa
A Social Science and Medicine journal article surmises that despite studies suggesting the “prevalence of depression in Low and Middle-Income Countries (LMIC) and sub-Saharan African (SSA) countries was comparable to that found in High-Income Countries (HIC), at around 10–20% of the population at any one time; most people living with depression did not seek treatment” for their symptoms.
The COVID-19 pandemic has normalized the fact that depression affects all people regardless of age, location or socioeconomic status. A study led by Rosie Mayston shows how depression affects women in sub-Saharan Africa. The authors’ female-driven narrative indicates that “depression was understood to disrupt natural rhythms: childcare, sex, education, participation in rituals and community events.” The paper explains further that if symptoms of depression were “left to intensify,” this could potentially “overwhelm and replace the sense of the everyday and the individual’s place in the world.”
The Links Between Mental Health, Global Development and Poverty
In the context of poverty and global development, the impacts of depression are dire. In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) noted that “there can be no health or sustainable development without mental health” priorities. Furthermore, “Depression and anxiety disorders cost the global economy US$1 trillion per year.”
A 2018 research paper published by the Psychiatric Times states that “the evidence is strong for a causal relationship between poverty and mental health.” Yet, the authors’ research suggests “that poverty leads to mental health and developmental problems that in turn prevent individuals and families from leaving poverty, creating a vicious, intergenerational cycle of poverty and poor health.” Essentially, individuals living with depression are more likely to experience poverty, and as their mental health degrades, the likelihood of these individuals pulling themselves out of poverty reduces. Hence, addressing issues of mental health will positively affect instances of poverty.
StrongMinds Tackles Mental Health
StrongMinds is spearheaded by Sean Mayberry, a culturally-informed global citizen and former diplomat who saw the need for depression management in sub-Saharan Africa. The organization, founded in 2013, uses the WHO-approved, cost-effective Group Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT-G) to address depression in sub-Saharan Africa in women and adolescents. StrongMinds trains Peer Facilitators in the community to use what they learn in their personal IPT-G sessions and deliver this content in Peer Therapy Groups in order to reach as many people as possible within impoverished communities.
According to Elliott, “Peer Facilitators are former StrongMinds clients who experienced such remarkable recoveries from depression that they now want to help others.” StrongMinds trains peer facilitators “to lead their own therapy groups as volunteers and become mental health leaders in their communities.” Hence, StrongMinds’ group talk model of healing embodies grassroots initiatives building pillars of support and resiliency within the local community.
StrongMinds highlights success stories ranging from tales of mothers who have learned coping mechanisms to adolescents who were able to regain confidence and resiliency when facing barriers in completing their education during COVID-19. The organization has treated people from Uganda and Zambia for depression using IPT-G and Peer Therapy Groups. Satisfyingly, the post-treatment results are the most impressive success. StrongMinds states that more than 80% of participants indicated feeling no symptoms of depression, a result which was sustained six months post-treatment.
With regards to the StrongMinds programs in Uganda and Zambia, Elliot proudly states that the organization “has now treated depression in more than 100,000 women and adolescents in sub-Saharan Africa and changed the lives of their 400,000 dependents and family members.” Yet, Elliott juxtaposes the fact that, despite making headway, it is important to understand that “approximately 66 million women on the African continent were experiencing depression, and due to lack of investment, about 85% of these women had no access to effective treatment.”
StrongMinds’ Far-Reaching Impacts
Holding a series of awards, 19 years of documented success and a Charity Navigator rating of 100%, StrongMinds is making strides in the realm of mental healthcare in developing countries. StrongMinds approximates “that for every woman who restores her mental health, an additional four people in her household feel the benefits.” In addition, “when a woman recovers from depression, data shows that her family eats more meals a day, her children go to school more often and her household economic productivity increases.”
Elliott says that StrongMinds aspires to reach every woman in need of mental health services across the African continent and aims to provide treatment to 300,000 additional women by 2024. With the work of organizations such as StrongMinds, adequate mental healthcare can reach the most disadvantaged areas of the globe.
– Michelle Renée Genua
Photo: Courtesy of StrongMinds