Giving attention to mental health

It is common to see mentally ill people in Malawi’s cities, some of whom patronise churches on Sunday.

In some cases, some people take advantage of the mentally ill and abuse them, but unfortunately, such abuse mostly goes unreported and is hardly taken seriously since they are not regarded as worthy people in our society.

According to the Ministry of Health, approximately 130 000 people in the country will have severe mental illness in the form of phobia at some point in their life.

Programme manager of Non-Communicable Diseases and Mental Health in the Ministry of Health, Dr Beatrice Mwagomba, says people have a wrong perception about mental patients.

“There are several things that contribute to mental illnesses, but people tend to ignore the early signs of the illness and when it is advanced, they just regard it as misala without offering any help to the patient,” she notes.

Stigma

Chairperson of the Pan-African Network of People with Psychosocial Disabilities, Robinah Alambuya Nakanwagi, says stigma is the main problem mental patients face in many African countries.

“This problem is perpetuated by inaccessibility of mental treatment facilities, especially in rural areas, a thing which makes friends and relatives give up on the condition of their loved ones because many Africans are poor,” says Nakanwagi, a Ugandan.

She, however, notes that the voice of those that are perceived as mentally ill is often disregarded, considered irrelevant or ignored.

Principal Secretary of Ministry of Health, Dr Charles Mwansamba, says in Malawi, the rate of stigma against people with mental illness is high—with such people being labelled names, denied employment and access to other services, just because they suffered from mental illness.

Mental health education

He further points out the need for mental health education programmes so that Malawians are more conversant with issues surrounding mental illness, including the fact that anybody can suffer from the illness and that people who have suffered from it, once treated, can go back to work or participate in community work.

‘Most mental health policies outdated’

Making his presentation at the second annual Malawi Mental Health Research and Practice Development conference held in Blantyre recently, associate professor Crick Lund of University of Cape Town, South Africa said mental health is given low priority on African health and development policy agendas.

“Only half of African countries have mental health policies and many are outdated. In relation to resource allocation, 70 percent of African countries spend less than one percent of their meagre health budgets on mental health,” he says.

In Malawi, expenditure on mental health constitutes, on average, about 1.5 percent of the public health budget, with most of the expenditure happening in the psychiatric hospitals.

In order to address the issues of stigma and to raise awareness on mental health issues in Malawi, the Malawi chapter of Mental Health Users and Carers Association (Mehuca) has been launched.

One of the board of directors, Orpheus Chipata, says days of ridiculing mentally disturbed people are over since the organisation will be advocating for rights of mental patients and conducting civic education on mental health issues.

“There are a lot of challenges in the mental health sector which are not addressed because there is no one to push them, so this association will push for the implementation of programmes that will enhance mental health treatment,” he says.

Malawi has no clinical psychologist working in the public sector and this affects the provision of special services like psychosocial rehabilitation of patients with drugs abuse, services for children and victims of domestic violence, among others.

Mehuca is funded by Scotland-Malawi Mental health Education project.

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