October is recognised as Mental Health Awareness Month and several events were organised throughout the UK around this issue. One event I attended in London was a discussion entitled, ‘The Fifth NCD: Integrating Mental Health Care within NCD Prevention and Control’. It was part of a three-part series called, ‘The Future of Public in Africa’ organised by Bobab. The series also included sessions on emerging infectious diseases and on financing public health. Bobab is an organisation that seeks to link science, technology and business professionals focussed on Africa to foster collaboration and innovation in areas such as health, water and sanitation, urbanisation, agribusiness, and energy.

This particular event was a panel discussion which began with the organiser speaking about the motivations for the event and the pushback he received for organising an event on mental health in Africa. He noted that many people he approached believed that there were bigger issues to deal with on the African continent. So, while the events on emerging infectious disease and on financing public health were well-received, he felt he had to explain that mental health was in fact a relevant issue for Africa. He then gave a presentation outlining the burden of mental illness in Africa.  Perhaps reflecting the popularity of media and technological innovations, the use of phone apps to address mental health seemed to feature strongly in the remaining presentations. Gus Booth-Clibborn presented his work on an app for behavioural action to address health and chronic conditions, including mental illness. Another presenter, Nicole Kayode, discussed the crisis in mental health among doctors and the particular issues facing doctors practising in resource-constrained facilities in many African countries. She presented an app she helped to develop that aims to allow healthcare workers to share knowledge and get peer support across the African continent. The final speaker was Shirah Mansaray, a PhD candidate at University College London who studies the architecture of mental health facilities in Uganda and its effects on patients. She discussed some work she is doing with former child soldiers in Uganda through her NGO and also argued that public health should be curative and not just preventative.

The discussion that followed the presentations touched on a number of questions and points:

  • Is mental health a priority or does Africa have more important issues?
  • Do policymakers have mental health on their agenda and how do they get it on their agenda?
  • Is the focus on mental health actually a new issue on the continent?
  • Where does and where should funding to address mental health come from? International aid? Domestic/government resources? Business?
  • The role of social context. Mental illness as a problem with individuals versus a response to adverse circumstances.
  • The role of faith-based institutions.
  • Promoting mental health and wellbeing among employees as an incentive for businesses.
  • Is mental illness better served as part of the NCD agenda or as an issue on its own?
  • Funding for infectious disease versus NCDs.

Overall, there seems to be increasing attention to mental health in the global health agenda as well as in the NCD agenda, with its recent inclusion in the UN/WHO NCD framework as well through the Lancet Commission on Global Mental Health and Sustainable Development. The discussion hosted by Bobab was just one among many events taking place this past month addressing these issues and it will be interesting to see where the momentum leads.

About Kafui Adjaye-Gbewonyo

Kafui is a Research Associate with the Chronic Disease in Sub-Saharan Africa team. She is examining recent trends in chronic diseases and potential social, demographic, behavioural, psychosocial and environmental explanations for these trends using data from South African and Ghanaian population surveys. She is also collecting family health histories of chronic disease through interviews with coastal Ghanaians.