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Nearly 30 million Africans live with some form of mental illness

Mental health problems appear to be increasing in importance in Africa. Picture: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Mental health problems appear to be increasing in importance in Africa. Picture: Gerd Altmann/Pixabay

Published Jul 6, 2022


Cape Town - Between 2000 and 2015, the continent's population grew by 49%, yet the number of years lost to disability as a result of mental and substance use disorders increased by 52%, according to the medical journal the Lancet.

But as times change and as we enter a post-pandemic world, the need for reliable and quality mental health care is crucial if we are to tackle mental health in Africa.

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This comes at a crucial time when symptoms of anxiety and depression are exacerbated by financial strain as inflation on basic goods and fuel spiral.

Rolling power blackouts caused by load shedding add to the stresses that South Africans face as they try to navigate the demands of running businesses and households in the context of interrupted power supply.

Recent findings of a Unicef South Africa U-Report poll highlight this reality, with some 65 percent of young people stating that they had some form of a mental health issue but did not seek help.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there is a fundamental underinvestment in mental health that makes providing access to care incredibly difficult. The WHO adds that there has been little progress in terms of government spending on mental health, which remains below $1 (R16.68) per person in most countries of sub-Saharan Africa.

A new digital health application called Kena Health is improving access to mental health services across South Africa.

“Digital mental health solutions are increasingly helping to address the barriers to seeking mental health care, ” said application creators.

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This application assists in improving access to mental health professionals through a private, affordable and remote access service.

According to the application creators, since its launch in March 2022, about 25% of its consultations have been for Mental Health issues related to Depression, Anxiety, and Stress.

The single biggest barrier to getting help is knowing that there’s a problem, say the creators of this application.

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“Mental health is seldom taught or addressed in schools, and there’s a general low level of awareness of the symptoms of different mental health conditions. People who need mental health help often misidentify symptoms or their causes and so struggle with them for months or years, excusing them or believing that they’re caused by something else. This is exacerbated by the cultural stigma that often surrounds mental illness.”

“One of the few silver linings of the pandemic has been that more people have realised that they’re not alone in experiencing depression, anxiety, grief, trauma and other mental health conditions – and have become more open to talking about their experiences. At the same time, the growing availability of app-based counselling services like Kena Health has also made accessing mental health help easier than ever.”

According to data from the South African Society of Psychiatrists, there are only 1.52 psychiatrists per 100 000 people in the country, and they’re mostly concentrated in just two provinces – Gauteng and the Western Cape.

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This compares to more than 30 per 100 000 for some countries in Europe – almost 20 times more.

The result is long wait lists, high prices and lack of access in small and rural communities.

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