Four facts about mental health in Africa

September is the Suicide Prevention Awareness month.

The World Bank considers depression as “the greatest thief of productive economic life.”

Depression is the most prevalent mental illness in the world. Currently, an estimated 100 million people in Africa suffer from clinical depression, including 66 million women.

The World Bank considers it “the greatest thief of productive economic life”, with yearly global costs from mental, neurological and substance use disorders estimated at between sh.250-850 trillion a year.

1. More people are in need of mental health services now than ever before.

The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted critical mental health services in 93% of countries at the same time as the demand for mental health programmes is increasing, according to a new WHO survey.

Over 60% of the 130 countries surveyed reported disruptions to mental health services for vulnerable people, including children and adolescents, older adults and women.

2. Depression is a silent epidemic. The majority of African women don’t have access to mental health services.

For African women – afflicted at twice the rate of men – depression is the number one cause of disability. Most African governments spend less than 1% of their allocated health budget on mental illness. Due to the lack of investment in related services, 85% of people suffering from depression on the continent have no access to an effective treatment.

3. There are proven solutions, but they aren’t widely used.

The WHO endorses group interpersonal psychotherapy as a front-line mental health intervention for vulnerable populations.

Since depression is episodic and recurrent throughout most people’s lives, these newly acquired skills have both immediate and long-term preventive impacts for the sufferer.

4. Ignoring mental illness has wide-reaching impacts beyond the individual experiencing it.

When a woman is unable to perform her essential social responsibilities, she can become a target of criticism and exclusion. An African woman with depression, compared to her healthy peers, suffers greatly: she is less productive, has a lower income and has poorer physical health.

If she is a mother, the negative impact extends to her entire family. Research shows that children of depressed mothers are more likely to have poor health, struggle in or miss school, and suffer from depression themselves.

Additionally, untreated depressive symptoms in young people are linked to increased alcohol use and high-risk sexual behaviour; both are considered risk factors for the spread of HIV, one of the top 10 causes of death in low-income countries.

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