Susana Edjang of Equatorial Guinea/Spain has over 15 years of experience in international development. She is co-founding member of Afroinnova, an African diaspora innovation platform, is a member of the Council of the UK’s Royal African Society, and co-founder of Collateral Benefits.
COVID-19 has disrupted health services across African countries, especially mental health services. African mental health practitioners report increased demand for mental health services and psychosocial counselling.
This has come both from people with pre-existing mental health conditions and those impacted by spikes in stressors associated with COVID-19 such as isolation, depression, anxiety about the risks associated with loss of income and loved ones, and the misuse of alcohol and drugs.
This situation has prompted many promising responses that help overcome the stigma and discrimination associated with mental health conditions for people who live with them and people working in this field.
A steady, albeit insufficient, visibility of mental health issues has been sustained throughout the pandemic:
- The Africa CDC issued a guidance for mental health and psychosocial support;
- According to the WHO, at least 27 African countries have integrated mental health in their national responses, with the brave support of community or village health workers;
- Civil society and the private sector have expanded existing innovations or created new ones to ensure increased access to mental health services and information through telemedicine, social media campaigns and other technological solutions.
Examples include iDocta Africa in Cameroon, Wazi in Kenya, the MEGA project in the Southern Africa Development Community, and Shezlong in Egypt.
Although these opportunities are limited to people with digital literacy and access to the internet and smartphones, they are a great addition to government efforts to make mental health services fully accessible to those hardest to reach, especially in the rural areas. Next we must use these innovations to counteract the inequalities that maintain the ‘treatment gap’ – the proportion of people living with mental health illness who don’t get treatment – at over 70% across Africa, including those in refugee camps, and lead to the more than 35,000 Africans committing suicide each year.
Greater awareness and investment in mental health is long overdue and we know from previous experiences with the Ebola epidemic or HIV/AIDS crises, that the mental health impacts will outlast the pandemic.
It is critical for the prevention and the care of those at risk of and living with mental health conditions, including frontline health workers. Mental health and psychological support must be better integrated and prioritised into COVID-19 national responses and beyond.