By Whitney Akinyi

A groundbreaking conference, themed ‘Healing the Brain: Bridging the Gap in low-and middle-income countries (LMICs),’ has commenced in Nairobi, Kenya’s capital, bringing together mental health experts and neuroscientists from around the world.

The four-day event, organized by the Brain and Mind Institute (BMI) at Aga Khan University, aims to address the pressing challenges faced by LMICs in promoting and sustaining brain health.

The conference is set to delve into the profound impact that mental health and neuroscience have on individuals, communities, and societies. Key issues to be addressed include barriers to access care, insufficient research and funding, cultural obstacles to help-seeking behavior, and the general lack of awareness among populations.

Recent studies highlight the economic burden of mental health conditions, with the Ministry of Health’s Mental Health Investment Case 2021 estimating the cumulative cost in Kenya alone at Kshs. 62.2 billion.

On a global scale, the World Health Organization (WHO) reveals that depression and anxiety cost the world economy a staggering one trillion US dollars annually in lost productivity. Projections from the World Economic Forum indicate that the cost of mental health conditions is expected to skyrocket to 6 trillion US Dollars globally by 2030.

Addressing the dire need for intervention and investment in brain health, Dr. Sulaiman Shahabuddin, President of Aga Khan University, emphasized, “Globally, mental health receives just 2 percent of all health funding, falling to 1 percent in lower-income countries. Only a third of national health insurance plans in lower-income countries cover mental health conditions, and there are just 2 mental health workers for every 100,000 people.”

Dr. Shahabuddin further highlighted the concerning state of mental health research in Africa, constituting just 2 percent of all health research, despite the continent having the highest suicide rate in any WHO region.

The BMI’s Founding Director, Prof Zul Merali, stressed the urgent need to address mental health disorders, describing them as the “largest of all diseases put together” with significant socio-economic implications.

Prof. Merali expressed hope that the conference, through expertise, experience, and collaboration with stakeholders, would contribute to transforming perceptions of mental health.

In alignment with this vision, Prof. Lukoye Atwoli, BMI’s Deputy Director, hailed the conference as a crucial step in the right direction, emphasizing the importance of initiating critical conversations and involving partners across various sectors to achieve the BMI’s vision of a healthy brain and world.

BMI aims to rally communities, governments, and practitioners in developing countries to make substantial strides in prevention, treatment, and awareness efforts against the silent pandemic. The conference seeks to foster collaboration among stakeholders, promoting the integration of brain health into overall health systems.