By Joyce Ojanji

With mental health problems accounting for up to 11% of the risk factors associated with suicide, the World Health Organization(WHO) has launched a social media campaign aimed to reach 10 million people across the region to prevent the high deaths by suicide in Africa.

The social media campaign, launched ahead of world mental health day aims to raise public awareness and galvanize the support of governments and policymakers to increase focus and funding for mental health programming, including suicide prevention efforts.

‘’Suicide is a major public health problem and every death by suicide is a tragedy. Unfortunately suicide prevention is rarely a priority in national health programmes,” said Dr Matshidiso Moeti, WHO Regional Director for Africa. “Significant investment must be made to tackle Africa’s growing burden of chronic diseases and non-infectious conditions such as mental disorders that can contribute to suicide.”

The African region is home to six of the 10 countries with the highest suicide rates worldwide. Around 11 people per 100 000 per year die by suicide in the African region, higher than the global average of nine per 100 000 people. This is due in part to insufficient action to address and prevent the risk factors, including mental health conditions which currently affect 116 million people, up from 53 million in 1990.

Under-investment by governments in the region is the greatest challenge to adequate mental health service provision. On average governments allocate less than 50 US cents per capita to mental health. Although it is an improvement from 10 US cents in 2017, it is still well below the recommended US$ 2 per capita for low-income countries. Additionally, mental health care is generally not included in national health insurance schemes.

Due to the low investment in mental health services, the African region has one psychiatrist for every 500 000 inhabitants, which is 100 times less than WHO recommendation. Additionally, mental health workers are mostly in urban areas, with primary and community health facilities having very few if any.

To step up mental services in the region, WHO is training primary health care workers to boost quality access to mental health services in countries like Zimbabwe, Kenya and Uganda.

“Mental health is integral to wholesome health and well-being yet far too many people in our region who need help for mental health conditions do not receive it. It’s time to for radical change,” Dr Moeti said. “Ongoing efforts by countries should be reinforced and broadened to make mental health care a public health priority in the African region.”

In August 2022, African health ministers gathering for the Seventy-second session of the WHO Regional Committee for Africa—the region’s flagship health meeting—endorsed a new strategy to reinforce mental health care and set 2030 targets: all countries to have a policy or legislation on mental health, 60% of countries implementing the policy, 95% of countries monitoring and reporting on key mental health indicators and 80% of countries have a budget for mental health services.