Originally published on Medium | March 29, 2023
by Sylvia K. Ilahuka, Writer & Editor
For the longest time, mental health has been regarded as secondary to physical health. The acknowledgment of the extent to which psychological challenges are a vital component of holistic wellbeing is a relatively recent concept. As of 2019, 1 in every 8 people (that’s 970 million people) were living with a mental illness — according to the World Health Organization. While diagnoses and degrees of severity vary, the impacts of mental unwellness on livelihood are vast, yet mental health continues to be fraught with stigma and lack of support. In Africa, this is amplified by broader healthcare access challenges. With many African governments’ allocating less than 50 US cents per capita for mental healthcare, the sector is severely underfunded — and the continent’s youth are particularly vulnerable. The conversation about funding mental health organizations in Africa is therefore an important one, and one that Segal Family Foundation will be facilitating at the upcoming 2023 Skoll World Forum.
When considering care for mental health, it proves particularly effective to think outside the box. This is because traditional approaches to mental health needs are often confined within Western biomedical systems (hospitals), rendering them unaffordable or low in quality given the obstacles African countries face. SFF’s mental health portfolio — over USD 700k to date — features African organizations running unique interventions tailored to the populations they serve. From older women being trained as community counselors (Friendship Bench) to youth-led art festivals as mental health awareness platforms (Mental 360), these creative ways of approaching the issue are similar in that they each appeal to their contexts. Supporting local innovations for local needs is a philanthropy best practice in how it not only maintains a community’s autonomy but also ensures meaningful impact. These positives are amplified when local stakeholders work together, as TINADA Youth Organization seeks to encourage by propagating connections in the Kenyan mental health space.
Funding mental health organizations also supports research to better understand the prevalence and impact of mental health issues in Africa. While grassroots efforts are predominantly focused on meeting needs, organizations like Friendship Bench are also anchoring their work in research whose findings are published in international medical journals — bringing local issues to a global platform and fostering collaborative solutions. This information could be used to drive evidence-based policies and legal reforms to address the unique mental health challenges facing African communities, as Basic Needs Kenya does. In addition, funding allows for mental health systems strengthening via training of professionals to meet demand for services. These opportunities are few and far between, and organizations like Kamili are working to make them more commonplace.
Mental health struggles, in Africa and the world over, are usually surrounded by stigma. This stigma is compounded in already-marginalised populations such as the gender- and sexually-diverse individuals whom the Taala Foundation serves. Stigma often prevents people from seeking help and support; mental health organizations help counter this by promoting education and advocacy initiatives aimed at changing societal attitudes towards mental health. For instance, anonymous telecounseling options (like what Wazi offers) have increased ease of access to services as well as comfort. Mental health disorders have significant economic and social consequences — including reduced productivity, increased healthcare costs, and other ripple effects. By investing in relevant organizations, resources can be allocated towards the development of effective prevention and treatment programs to improve the quality of life of people living with these disorders in Africa.