In Africa, it's crucial to distinguish between mental health and mental disease, for patients with mental diseases they require treatment, need love and our support but mental health is for everyone. Currently an estimated 100 million people in Africa suffer from clinical depression. Young people in Africa are particularly at risk of mental disorders and yet healthcare systems are not well equipped to deal with them.
Research has shown that a high incidence of mental disorders and mental health symptoms are more prevalent among young adolescents in most Sub-saharan countries with a greater burden compared to those in high income countries. 50 percent of mental disorders have their onset before the age of 14 and 75 percent before the age of 25. Globally, in increasing numbers, young people are facing mental-health issues. Depression is a leading cause of illness among young people. Anxiety is on the rise. Suicide ranks third as a cause of death for 15- to 19-year-olds and is increasingly becoming a health equity issue.
Some mental health illnesses have been linked to imbalance of chemicals called neurotransmitters. These help the nerve cells in the brain communicate and if these chemicals are out of balance or not working properly then messages may not be transmitted well in the brain causing symptoms of mental illness. There are so many other factors that can contribute to the mental state of a person and these include political unrest, violence, poverty, migrations, family and addictions. Adequate care and treatment may not be available to the sufferers because of the stigma that surrounds people dealing with mental illnesses in Africa.
In Ghana only 1.17 percent of those who are suffering from mental health problems have received the required treatment and there are only 3 major psychiatric hospitals in the country. Compared to other west African countries each psychiatrist is allocated 1.5 million people and with such limited accessibility many mental health sufferers seek medical attention from traditional or faith healers.
The situation in East African Countries is dire. In Uganda alone over 14 million people suffer from mental health issues and there is evident shortage of mental health practitioners in public service. There have been documented cases of such persons being tied to trees and logs far away from the community for elongated periods of time without food and shelter. A study performed in Uganda revealed that the term ‘depression’ is not culturally acceptable amongst the population, suggesting that mental health issues are not acknowledged or considered a legitimate affliction. In another study conducted in Nigeria, participants generally responded with fear, avoidance and anger to those who were observed to have a mental illness. The stigma linked to mental illness in that country can be attributed to a variety of factors, including lack of education, fear, religious reasoning and general prejudice.
There are many barriers faced by African mental health workers in their efforts to improve and increase the availability of services in their regions. The lack of funds allocated by most African governments to the mental health field poses a problem in expanding services so as to adequately meet demand. Furthermore, difficulties such as finding adequate transportation and medication are general obstacles for health workers attempting to reach rural dwellers.
Despite the many shortcomings in their field, mental health professionals are resilient in their efforts to serve and challenge the status quo. For example, the Ministry of Health and Social Welfare in Liberia is working towards increasing access to mental health services throughout the country. The Ministry has partnered with organizations such as the Carter Center and Doctors of the World, with the intention being to establish wellness centers in each of Liberia’s 15 counties.
Following its 11-year civil war, Sierra Leone, established a child-soldier rehabilitation project, providing counseling and other support to children living with war trauma. In the DRC, women facing gender-based violence can now go to ‘listening houses’ where they can talk through their trauma in a secure setting. An entire generation is counting on us. We are asking leaders from across health care, business, nongovernmental organizations and academia to make youth mental health and wellness a priority.