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[CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA] Mental health is becoming one of Africa’s healthcare challenges that needs to be addressed urgently.
But, from World Psychiatric Association International Congress, which I attended in South Africa last month (18-22 November), I realised that it is not getting the attention it deserves.
Indeed, it is becoming incumbent upon the WHO to support efforts aimed at tackling mental health challenges in Africa. I couldn’t agree more that the WHO should support the African Union (AU) in its bid to see the World Bank switch from loans to grants to fund health projects globally.

It is becoming incumbent upon the WHO to support efforts aimed at tackling mental health challenges in Africa.

Munyaradzi Makoni

And I couldn’t agree more with the AU chairperson, Nkosazana Ndlamini-Zuma, when she aptly put it during the opening of the congress: “The World Bank shouldn’t give loans for health. They should give grants for health.”
It’s understandable: Physicians would get more funding for their work, patients will get greater care and governments will drop lack funds on a list of challenges confronting mental illness.
Ndlamini-Zuma’s comments followed a statement by Shekhar Saxena, director of mental health and substance abuse at the WHO that the World Bank had committed to supporting mental health more strongly after meeting the WHO in April this year.
Saxena had said any country applying for World Bank loans for health projects would have to ensure including mental health component.
The WHO statistics, says Ndlamini-Zuma, showed that 40.5 per cent of countries globally had no mental health policy in spite of estimates that one in every four people would suffer a mental health condition, called for more action.
On average there are nine psychiatrists for every 100,000 people in the West, but just 0.05 for 100,000 people for the African region, according to the WHO report.
“We need a pan-African movement to ensure there is no discrimination against mental health patients, and we need to develop programmes and proper policies around mental health,” Ndlamini-Zuma says.
Africa should update existing mental health policies and community-based interventions and see these formalised at AU level, Ndlamini-Zuma added, explaining that with poor human resources, the continent has to find other ways of helping improve mental health without relying exclusively on psychiatrists. “In Africa we cannot rely on Western models where there are abundant resources. We need to look at creative ways of using what we have,” she notes.
The congress highlighted the World Psychiatric Association global survey of 193 countries which revealed shocking results.
People with mental illness could vote in 11 per cent of the countries surveyed but they enjoyed no employment rights in more than half of the countries, and 42 per cent of the nations prevented those with mental illnesses from entering into to any kind of contract.
Dinesh Bhugra, president of the World Psychiatric Association, told the audience they had launched a mental health Bill of Rights in the House of Lords in London, United Kingdom, two weeks before the congress, and a of total 61 organisations around the world had signed it.
“I need every bit of help from everyone here to change the way we treat our [mental health] patients, who are the most vulnerable,” Bhugra says.
And who would dare not act to change such circumstances?
This piece was produced by SciDev.Net’s Sub-Saharan Africa English desk.

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