Mental health on the African continent has been, for a long time, an overlooked and neglected issue. Between stigma, ignorance and mistaken belief, it is clear today that the taboo that exists around psychological and emotional well-being has had devastating consequences on our community. Things need to change. In order for us to constructively address the question, let’s take a look at a couple of elements that actively contribute to the silencing of mental health in Africa.
Traditional Beliefs and Customs
This element is the most influential of them all. Traditional beliefs play an important part in the development of values which, consequently, shape mentalities and our decision-making process. Beliefs are reflected in our policies and leadership choices, and based on them, we can tell that mental health is depicted in a negative light on the African continent. Our traditional beliefs and values often shun mental health and anyone affected by it. Due to our communities not acknowledging mental health as a sickness, we tend to turn to the wrong resources for support. A study conducted by the WHO demonstrated that in Ethiopia, in the 2000s, 85% of emotionally disturbed people were estimated to seek help from traditional healers. Although recognizing the importance of mental health resources does not oppose our traditional beliefs and customs, we must raise awareness on proper intervention methods and perhaps, integrate traditional beliefs and customs within mental health resources. This integration could eliminate any pretext that mental health resources are “things from western communities.” Healthy and constructive traditional beliefs, customs and values can be useful and relevant in the African experience.
Education is key to multiple problematics on this blue planet. Mental health is certainly not immune to this powerful weapon. Education allows us to fight against incorrect mentalities and toxic beliefs. Mental health education should be implemented in our education systems. This would allow the generations to come to grow up knowing this issue exists in their communities. This would allow the next generation to better identify trauma and understand mental health, This would allow the next generation to create safe spaces for a stronger support system. Education is not just important for the next generation since we need to educate our communities as well about what is occurring right now among them. Education is primordial for us to fight against the silencing of mental health in our communities.
Finally, we are unable to fight against an issue without the support and engagement of the governments. We need more governments to commit to mental health policies. In 2005, according to a paper published by Oxford University Press in association with The London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, only 50% of African countries had mental health policies. Although we are aware that this number has increased, it is still lower than what it should be. Due to the lack of importance given to mental health in our communities, our governments are not interested in mental health policies and they refuse to invest the necessary funds into research and mental health resources.
The lack of policies protecting people suffering from mental illness puts many in danger and in a disadvantaged position.
The lack of investment in mental health research benefits to the silencing of mental health in our communities. It paints this false image of a population immune to mental illness. It makes the provision of mental health resources even harder since we do not have a clear idea of the need and the areas most affected. Due to a lack of investment in mental health research and education, we also see a lack of mental health practitioners since this profession is not encouraged in our communities.
The lack of investment in mental health resources causes a great deficiency in our communities which makes it harder for one seeking help to actually find and receive the support they need. For example in Ghana, in 2010, for a population of 100000, there were only 0.07 psychiatrists.
All these elements and many more contribute to this vicious cycle which benefits the silencing of mental health.
This silencing of mental health surely will not last.
One conversation at a time,
One article at a time,
One person at a time,
The silencing of mental health will be brought to an end.
Gureje O.Alem A. Mental health policy development inAfrica. World Health Organization 2000
Bird Philippa et al. Increasing the priority of mental health in Africa: findings from qualitative research in Ghana, South Africa, Uganda and Zambia. The Author 2010