Why is there a mental health emergency in Africa

Responding to Al Jazeera's The Stream 

A few days ago, the Al-Jazeera programme The Stream asked, “why is there a mental health emergency in Africa?” We decided to approach a few of our psychology scholars and alumni for their insights. Nyasha brings fresh perspective.

If you woke up with a lump on your penis or vagina, would you sit at home waiting for it to go away? Probably not. If you decided to do something about it, would you visit your local butcher and ask how to make it go away? Most likely not.

Yet many people wake up (and live) with signs of dire mental health related challenges and sit them out hoping that they will go away, or better yet, see a non-trained person hoping for solutions. There is in Africa an unfortunate avoidance of:

  • owning up that one is not doing well mentally, and
  • consulting trained professionals for mental healthcare.

Admittedly, there is a shortage of mental health services across Africa, however, there is also a deliberate avoidance of service uptake in settings where a decent presence of such services exists. Stigma hugely contributes to this. Many young and middle-aged people admit that they have been enlightened of the need to seek mental health support. However, their families accuse them of being weak, dramatic or possessed. Resultantly, they access the service only when they have experienced major breakdowns, do so in secret or opt out entirely much to their detriment.

As Africans, we need to re-evaluate what we affirm to be strength and identify where this has not served us. I do not see a new mental health emergency in Africa. I see an old problem that has finally found its courage and refuses to be silenced any longer. A few reasons why:

  1. COVID and the confinements of lockdown forced the continent to finally face our issues with nowhere to run thereby heightening our awareness and experiences of them,
  2. The voices of mental health activists finally found their way into mainstream media at a time when business and industry were forced into silence. Those that should have been listening finally began to hear and what follows was a scramble to place it on national agendas,
  3. Thanks to social media, previously silent people are speaking out and previously stifled voices are being amplified.

Unfortunately, most African governments have been complacent and have failed to fortify mental healthcare thus failing to cope with the demand. This unpreparedness has created a facade of a new problem when in reality, this ‘emergency’ has been with us for decades.

A few solutions,

At national level:

  • Governments to accord mental healthcare the same status as physical healthcare as opposed to the unwanted cousin of healthcare.
  • Governments to provide ongoing professional development support to practitioners and upskill them on current mental health interventions.
  • Governments to support training and regulation of mental health practitioners.

At communal level:

  • Be your neighbour’s keeper. Be kind, if you can’t heal, don’t hurt!
  • Create and be part of caring communal spaces- this may have both preventative and responsive effects.
  • Do not offer ‘counselling’ if you are not trained. Encourage your loved ones to access timeous support from professionals. Recognise that you may be well-meaning but not particularly helpful.

 At individual level:

  1. Seek help today! There is no honour in suffering in silence.
  2. Develop your own warning signs that help you notice when it’s time to speak to a professional. Allow the professional to hold space for you. Be kind to self as this happens, you are ill not crazy!
  3. Practice mindfulness and breathing techniques to help alleviate some symptoms. The internet is well resourced with free guides on this. Find what works for you and practice it even on your best days!

Why did I start off by giving examples of penises and vaginas? Because they are uncomfortable talk- however as uncomfortable they are, they must be medically addressed. So is mental health! The consequences of ignoring it are too dire for our generation and the next!