Many countries in the world struggle with the state of mental health and mental health care. Issues that are of major concern are a lack of awareness, a need for enough professionals to meet the need, the stigma surrounding issues of mental health, amongst others. African countries are not exempt from these issues. In fact, the state of mental health care in Africa is worse off than in Western states. There are a number of factors responsible for the current state of affairs. It is important for us to be aware of what they are and work together to improve mental health in Africa.
There is a significant lack of awareness about mental health, in Africa. The causes, mind-body connection, risk factors, diagnoses, and effects of poor mental health are still largely misunderstood. For example, some people are unaware that psychotic episodes or schizophrenia (often called “madness”) can be managed with treatment. With the right combination of counseling/psychotherapy, medication, and social support, symptoms are alleviated. Creating awareness about mental health in Africa is the foundation for the improvement of the state of affairs. For example, a close friend’s grandmother was labeled a witch. With increased education and awareness, his family now realizes that she suffers from dementia. She is currently receiving proper care. Fortunately, many young mental health professionals in Africa, are using social media platforms to create awareness about mental health on the continent. This article may help you or a loved one determine if professional help is needed.
There is such a huge stigma around mental health in Africa. And as we see with diseases like HIV, stigma usually keeps people from seeking help even when they need it. African media and movies depict mental health issues as a result of dark magic, possession by an evil spirit, doing hard drugs, or pretense. In addition, most of the portrayals of mental health are usually extreme and often show people with psychotic symptoms. Examples include seeing the person strip themselves naked, walk around on the street, eat inedible substances. So if an individual has a mental health concern, they are likely to refrain from speaking up about it. This is problematic because the majority of mental health problems are not that severe. However, when we do not address mild or moderate issues, they could eventually become severe. This situation can be remedied with an increase in creating awareness.
Religion is a big one on our continent, with Christianity, Islam, and African traditional religions being the most common. For most, prayer and religious rituals are a solution to almost every problem. Problems with physical and mental health in Africa are no exception. So when people experience any challenges in life, even psychological symptoms, they pray. In the past, the mental health field has shied away from including religion in therapy. These days, however, mental health professionals are gradually incorporating religion into counseling and psychotherapy. This is done with great caution, and we do not claim to be experts in any religion. We do this only if the client sees their religion as a source of strength for them. It has become evident that religion and mental health are not mutually exclusive. You can pray, and still seek mental health care, as you would if you had a medical problem.
The field of mental health in Africa is a relatively young one. There is a bit of a chicken and egg situation with the previous point on awareness. Is there a lack of awareness because there are so few professionals? Or are there few people going into the profession because of the lack of awareness about mental health? Regardless of what the answer is, the issue can be tackled from either angle. There are many who are in need of mental healthcare, especially counseling/psychotherapy in Africa. Unfortunately, there aren’t enough professionals available to tackle this big need. Some African governments are beginning to become more intentional about improving the state of mental healthcare. As such, more people need to be encouraged to pursue careers in mental health.
The above factors affecting mental health in Africa are only some of the issues the continent faces in this field. As you conclude reading this article, my hope is that you can in some way, contribute to the improvement of mental health in Africa. Some of the ways you can help are to educate yourself and others on the mental health field. You can encourage any student you know to explore careers in mental health. If you can influence policy at a macro level, it would be helpful to take mental health awareness into consideration in these policies. Finally, remember to treat anyone struggling with mental health issues, including yourself, with kindness, compassion, and support.