World Mental Health Day: Africa in focus


The 10th of October has been recognized as the World Mental Health Day. On this day, health education, awareness and advocacy against social stigma is being raised globally. This day was first celebrated in 1992 as an initiative of the World Federation for Mental Health. This mental health organization boasts of membership in more than 150 countries.

Mental health is simply the cognitive, behavioral and emotional well being of a person. It evolves around how people think, behave and feel and all these processes take place in the brain. When the brain gets sick, like every other organ does, it leads to what we term as mental illness.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 450 million people worldwide currently suffer from mental illness, placing it among the leading cause of ill health globally.

 Mental health in Africa

In a continent highly characterized by low income households, low life expectancy, poor health services and a high frequency of malnutrition and communicable disease, mental health issues seem to be the least of our priorities. Seeing as the death rate is mostly from infectious diseases and malnutrition, most African countries have no mental health policies or programs in place.

Aside that, there seem to be a lot of stigma and discrimination surrounding it as many lack an understanding of what it is really about. Many also believe that mental illness cannot be treated. This has stopped care and treatment from reaching those with a known mental illness. Some of the major causes are;

  • An increase in poverty resulting from wars, civil strife, social unrest, economic meltdowns etc. is a major cause of psychological problems.
  • Child abuse and domestic violence.
  • Alcohol, cannabis and drug related problems as many African countries are being used as transit point for illicit drug trade.
  • Social isolation of sufferers of epilepsy as it is still prevalently high and considered infectious.
  • Children suffer from poor psychological development as a result of neglect by their parents or care takers.
  • Prevalence of HIV infection which adds to the psychosocial problems experienced in many of the countries. Since the start of the epidemic, an estimated 34 million people have been infected with HIV.

The proportion of mental illness is projected to rise in many African countries over time. While mental illness can only be diagnosed by a specialist, the symptoms can be easily recognized. Some of them are;

  • A reduced ability to concentrate or confused thinking.
  • Trouble understanding and relating to people and situations.
  • Withdrawal from family, friends and social activities.
  • Problems sleeping, significant tiredness or low energy.
  • Inability to cope with stress or daily problems.
  • Excessive anger, hostility or violence.
  • Paranoia, detachment from reality (delusions) or hallucinations.
  • Extreme feelings of guilt, excessive fear and worries.
  • Regularly feeling down or sad.
  • Extreme high and low mood change.
  • Suicidal thoughts.
  • Alcohol or drug abuse.
  • Major weight loss or weight gain.
  • Changes in sex drive.

Experiencing some of these symptoms doesn’t necessarily translate to mental illness. This is why it is advisable to see a specialist. It is also important that we take mental health serious as it cannot be separated from physical wellness.

Fortunately, clinical improvements are being with mental health interventions across the continent. These psychological and pharmalogical interventions have proved to be effective. Moves are being made to impove and scale up the availability of care packages.


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