A quick Google search about mental health in Africa shows images of people locked up, in chains and kept in inhumane conditions. The topic is seen as taboo and many are quick to dismiss it.
Unfortunately, this attitude is prevalent even among African governments tasked with ensuring citizens get the highest attainable standard of health care, including mental health. In recent years, ‘Africa Rising’ has been a catch phrase in many conversations about the continent.
These words are used to describe the perceived Africa development, and the opportunity for more growth. Countries such as Kenya have taken these words to heart, hosting several international meetings, including Unctad and Ticad this year as follow ups to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit attended by US President Barack Obama last year.
All this in an effort to create an atmosphere for trade and development in the country and underscore the ‘Africa Rising’ theme. According to World Median Age, 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 youth.
African governments have taken this into consideration and written youth into their development plans. In Kenya, the government has come up with initiatives such as the Youth Fund, whose focus is on enterprise development and participation by youth in nation building.
Despite the efforts, the rise of Kenya and Africa as a whole is leaving something out. It does not put into consideration the need to create a conducive atmosphere for the mental well-being of the people who are powering this rise.
To bring the gap to light, World Health Organisation (WHO) teamed up with the World Bank earlier this year to convene an international gathering dubbed Out of the Shadows: Making Mental Health a Global Priority which brought together finance and health ministers, high-level government officials, international aid agencies, foundations, private sector and civil society to look into mental health issue from an economic angle and move it from the margins to the mainstream of the global health agenda.
Most governments neglect the burden mental health issues place on economies and the weight of unproductivity brought about by the fact that 25 per cent of the population have mental health condition at some point in their lifetime. This means both they and their caregivers cannot contribute to the development agenda.
The Kenyan Health ministry 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 stakeholders, has been aligned with key national legislation, including the Constitution, Vision 2030 and the Kenya Health Policy (2012-2030) and seeks to reform the mental health system in the country.
It also aims at addressing among systemic challenges and emerging trends as well as 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 that there is lack of leadership in the mental health field and proposes a board to oversee, among other things, funding to ensure service provision, training of service providers and guidelines for those in the mental health sector as well as to create public awareness of the issue.
The sector will remain stuck until the mental health board becomes functional. 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.
As all this grinds on, Kenya’s only referral hospital continues to be congested with an occupancy rate of 200 per cent. As the world marks this year’s world Mental Health Day this week and governments continue to promote the ‘Africa Rising’ agenda, one wonders why no effort is put in creating structures to help people in early stages of mental health problems to ensure they contribute in development. The writer a 2016 Aspen fellow and founder of My Mind, My Funk