There are several reasons as to why mental health should be given a priority. The first reason is that mental and physical health have a strong connection. It has been found that people with mental illness are more vulnerable to HIV. On the contrary, people living with HIV are twice as likely to be depressed as the general masses. It has also been found that depression in mothers directly affects the overall development of infants.
Furthermore, it has been found that diseases such as hypertension, diabetes, HIV, and tuberculosis have high levels of comorbidity with mental illness. A study in Ethiopia revealed that people with alarming mental conditions such as schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, and severe depression died 30 years earlier than the general population, especially those suffering from infectious diseases.
Secondly, mental health affects social and economic development. A large systematic review of 115 studies from 36 low and middle-income African countries found evidence that poverty was greatly related to common mental disorders such as depression, anxiety, and somatoform disorders.
These studies suggest that conditions of poverty increase the risk of mental illness. This happens through stress of food and income insecurity, life events such as trauma, illness and injuries, and the lack of resources to overcome such situations.
On the other hand, the mental sufferers tend to remain in poverty during their lifetime owing to increased healthcare expenditure, disability and stigma, which affects income-generating opportunities.
Thirdly, mental illness needs to be taken seriously as mental patients face issues related to human rights. They are often abused, condemned, ignored, and excluded from the mainstream society. This is true not only in Africa but all over the world.
The victims of schizophrenia, bipolar mood disorder, and epilepsy often face human rights abuses. They are often rejected due to beliefs that psychosis or epileptic seizures are symptoms of demon possession or evil spirits. As a result, they are denied access to life-changing treatment.
Lack of treatment in Africa is the norm rather than an exception. The number of mental health sufferers who do not receive treatment ranges from 75% in South Africa to an excess of 90% in Ethiopia and Nigeria.
Well, the good news is that there is hope for people with mental illness. Since the early 2000s, several randomized controlled trials (RCTs) in African nations have provided evidence that mental health interventions, including pharmacological and psychological interventions are greatly effective.
Most of these interventions made use of non-specialist health providers in local communities, thereby greatly cutting the cost of care.
For instance, in Uganda, Paul Bolton and colleagues showed significant improvements in depression with a group inter-personal therapy delivered by local non-specialist facilitators. In Zimbabwe, Dixon Chibanda and colleagues also showed improvements in depression, anxiety, disability and quality of life with a counseling intervention delivered by lay health workers called the Friendship Bench.
The other good news is that many mental health interventions improve the economic circumstances of people and family affected by mental illnesses. In 2011, a systematic review of interventions was carried out that break the cycle of poverty and mental illness.
Most of the studies that evaluated the economic impact of mental health interventions in low and middle-income countries showed that clinical improvements were related to economic improvements. In brief, it is worthwhile investing in mental health care.
Hence, the prosperity of a nation is dependent on the mental health of the people of a nation. If mental health is neglected, it will be difficult to achieve many development goals associated with poverty, HIV, malaria, gender empowerment, and education.