A quick Google search on images about mental health in Africa shows people locked up in chains and kept in inhumane conditions.
The topic is taboo and many are quick to dismiss it. Unfortunately, this attitude is prevalent even among African governments which should ensure citizens access the highest attainable standard of healthcare, including mental health.
In recent years, ‘Africa Rising’ has been a catchphrase in many conversations about the continent. It is used to describe the perceived development in the continent and the opportunities for more growth.
Countries such as Kenya have taken the phrase to heart, hosting a variety of international meets such as the UNCTAD 14 and the TICAD IV this year as follow-ups to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit co-hosted by Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta and Barack Obama last year.
All this is in an effort to create an atmosphere for trade and development in the country and underscore the ‘Africa Rising’ theme.
Measured by the median age worldwide, Africa is the youngest continent in the world, with a median-age of 19.7, meaning its rise is largely in the hands of its young people. African governments have taken this into consideration and written the youth into their development plans. The government, for example, has come up with initiatives such as the Youth Fund whose focus is on enterprise development and participation by the youth in nation building.
Despite these efforts, the rise of Kenya and Africa as a whole is leaving something out: It does not take into consideration the need to create a conducive atmosphere for the mental well-being of the people who are powering this rise. In an effort to bring this to light, the World Health Organisation teamed up with the World Bank earlier this year to convene an international meeting dubbed Out of the Shadows; Making Mental Health a Global Priority, which brought together ministers of Finance and Health, other high level government officials, international development aid agencies, foundations, private sector partners, and civil society to discuss mental health from an economic angle.
Most governments neglect the burden mental health issues place on economies and the ‘weight of unproductivity’ brought about by the fact that some 25 per cent of the population experience a mental health condition at some point in their lifetime – meaning both they and their caregivers cannot contribute to the development agenda.
Around the same time, the ministry of Health launched the first mental health policy, which, though completed in 2015, took one year to be shared with the public. The policy, put together by various mental health stakeholders, the ministry of Health and the WHO, has been aligned with key national legislation, including the Constitution, Vision 2030 and the Kenya Health Policy ( 2012-30 ) and seeks to reform the mental health system.
It also aims to address, among other things, systemic challenges and emerging trends. It will mitigate the burden of mental disorders and overhaul the Mental Health Act, Cap 248 from 1989 which is the main legal framework for mental health in Kenya. The policy notes there is lack of leadership in the mental health field. It proposes a board to ensure service provision, training of service providers and guidelines for those in the mental health sector as well as to create public awareness.
Though beautiful on paper, the reality on the ground is different. The sector will remain stuck until the mental health board becomes operational. For this to happen, there is need for a mental health bill which outlines the board’s functions and duties. But efforts to put through this legislation have stalled because of differences between the National Assembly and the Senate.
Sitawa Wafula, a 2016 Aspen fellow, is the founder and executive director of “My Mind, My Funk”, a mental health information and support hub, which runs Kenya’s first free mental health support line.
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