Mental health crisis across Africa as pandemic disrupts services

Half of 30 countries globally with highest suicide rates are in Africa, says WHO

Researchers also documented people with mental health problems, including children, being subjected to alternative ‘treatments’, including eating or drinking mixes of herbs. Photograph: Florent Vergnes/AFP

Researchers also documented people with mental health problems, including children, being subjected to alternative ‘treatments’, including eating or drinking mixes of herbs. Photograph: Florent Vergnes/AFP

 

The World Health Organisation has warned of a mental health crisis across Africa, as services are disrupted or stopped, even as demand rises due to the coronavirus pandemic.

A survey carried out by the WHO, which targeted 28 African countries, found 37 per cent of those that responded said they had no funding at all for mental health response plans. In places where mental health services are still operating, patients can have problems reaching them because of travel restrictions, according to the WHO.

“Isolation, loss of income, the deaths of loved ones and a barrage of information on the dangers of this new virus can stir up stress levels and trigger mental health conditions or exacerbate existing ones,” Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s Africa regional director, said ahead of World Mental Health Day on October 10th.

Locked up

“Covid-19 is adding to a long-simmering mental health care crisis in Africa. Leaders must urgently invest in life-saving mental health care services.”

Half of the 30 countries globally with the highest suicide rates are in Africa, the WHO says. It is one of the regions with one of the lowest mental health public expenditure rates: less than 9 cent per person. The pandemic has increased concerns about what will happen to those who need help.

This week, New York-headquartered organisation Human Rights Watch released a report saying hundreds of thousands of people around the world, who suffer from mental illness, are shackled, chained or locked up.

African countries listed included Morocco, Ghana, Tanzania, Mozambique, South Sudan, Kenya, Liberia and Egypt.

In Nigeria, Africa’s most populous country, researchers visited 28 private and government-run facilities which dealt with mental illness, with interviewees including a chained up child who was just 10 years old, and a man aged 86.

“I’ve been chained for five years. The chain is so heavy,” said another man, Paul, in Kenya. “I stay in a small room with seven men . . . I have to go to the toilet in a bucket.”

Bitter medicines

Researchers also documented people with mental health problems or psychosocial disabilities, including children, being subjected to alternative “treatments”, including eating or drinking mixes of herbs, being denied food or sung Gospel hymns, in various parts of the continent.

“I’ve been tied many times and given bitter medicines through the nose,” said Carlos, a victim in Mozambique. “They give you roots, leaves as medicine. Their treatment was always unsuccessful.”

The organisation heard reports of some people with mental health problems being beaten or left vulnerable to sexual abuse. Researchers also witnessed a lack of hygiene and sanitation, and called for more oversight.

In some countries, progress was documented. Until 2018, Human Rights Watch’s report said, people with mental health conditions who were admitted to Sierra Leone’s psychiatric hospital in capital city Freetown were asked to pay for a padlock and chain before entering. Now, the practice has finally been banned.