The World Health Organisation (WHO) and United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) have called for governments to increase investment in and access to mental healthcare services for children living in Africa.
This as South Africa commemorates Mental Health Awareness Month in the wake of WHO reporting that at least one in seven children living in sub-Saharan countries like South Africa are suffering “significant psychological hardship”.
UNICEF Regional Director for Eastern and Southern Africa, Mohamed Fall, said children on the African continent face challenges far greater than even adults.
“Addressing child and adolescent mental health in Africa is urgent. Over the years, millions of young people have been exposed to challenges most adults would find very difficult to cope with, often having to deal with the psychological impacts on their own. Our systems are still failing them,” Fall said.
In Central and West Africa, the picture for children’s mental health is much the same as their counterparts in sub-Saharan Africa.
UNICEF Regional Director for West and Central Africa, Marie-Pierre Poirier, said the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdowns have triggered a doubling in the number of children reaching out for mental health support.
“COVID and the response measures have created an environment of uncertainty, isolation and anxiety. The number of children targeted for mental health and psychosocial support across West and Central Africa since the pre-COVID period has almost doubled (87%) from just below 1.1 million in 2019 to almost two million in 2021.
“Sadly, these estimates are probably only part of the real need,” Poirier said.
WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, revealed that in Africa, governments invest less than R14 per person on mental healthcare services.
“Investment in mental health remains extremely low in Africa, with government expenditure at less than one US dollar per capita. We simply cannot afford to let millions of children needing care go without help.
“It is time to make a difference and ensure that children grow into adulthood free of the potentially lifelong and devastating impacts of unaddressed mental health challenges,” Moeti said.
She highlighted that the number of mental health workers available to each person in Africa compromises the quality of help people can receive.
“Almost two years into the COVID-19 pandemic, many people are experiencing isolation, anxiety or depression. Unfortunately, most people with mental health conditions in Africa do not have access to quality care. There are fewer than two mental health workers per 100 000 people in the African Region, compared to a global average of 13.
“I urge governments to invest in the social determinants of mental health and to work with civil society groups and the private sector to strengthen mental health services in communities,” Moeti said.