Empowering African Women to Overcome Mental Health Challenges

Helen Okechukwu

As life progresses, mental health becomes an enormous difficulty for many African nations, especially when it comes to depression, which is a major hindrance to people’s ability to live properly. Mental health disorders are a worldwide concern that are frequently disregarded, with Africa facing particular challenges in tackling the pre-pandemic problem.

Data Obtained from frontier Article; Prevalence of Anxiety and Depression Among the General Population in Africa During the COVID-19 Pandemic: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis, Showing the Region Affected by Mental Health Issue. 

Globally, mental illnesses impacted one in eight people who suffered from a mental illness in 2019, and the COVID-19 epidemic has made these statistics even worse. The number of individuals facing mental health issues is on the rise, with millions of people worldwide suffering from depression, anxiety,Post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and drug misuse, which results in thousands of deaths annually.

According to a recent survey, 39% of Ugandan women and 24% of men suffer from severe anxiety. In a similar vein, just 5% of males suffer from depression, compared to 12.6% of women. A considerable rise in the number of impacted people has resulted from inadequate efforts to manage and prevent risk factors, such as mental health disorders. 

As a result, there are 11 suicide-related fatalities per 100,000 people in Africa each year, with 116 million individuals affected, up from 53 million in 1990. By 2030, depression is expected to be the most common cause of mental disease, according to the World Health Organisation.

Emotions such as fear, the death of a loved one, feeling ignored, and hopelessness can set off mental health disorders in people. They frequently experience stigma that persists even after they recover. In Africa, mental health problems have a huge economic impact. Uganda is one of the top six developing nations in Africa in terms of depression rates. 

Only 1 percent of Uganda’s healthcare budget, or US$246 per person per year, is allocated to mental health services. Uganda spends 9.8% of its GDP on healthcare. Uganda has a high prevalence of mental health conditions compared to other low- and middle-income countries. According to a Lancet Psychiatry correspondence, approximately 14 million people out of a population of 43.7 million, or about 32.0%, were affected by mental illness in 2022. Due to the lack of investment in mental health services, approximately 85% of people in low-income countries receive no treatment. The World Bank has called mental health “the greatest thief of productive economic life,” with yearly global costs amounting to U.S. $2.5 trillion.

In the heart of Africa, where the sun blazes and life’s rhythm beats strong, there’s a silent struggle with an invisible epidemic. It’s a battle fought within the depths of the mind, a struggle against the shadows of depression that haunt the lives of countless women. But amidst this darkness, there shines a beacon of hope—a guiding light known as Strong Minds.

On the grooving streets of Uganda and Zambia, where life’s melody often falters under the weight of adversity, StrongMinds tirelessly works to address the mental health crisis, with a particular focus on women. In a conversation with Ambrose Kanyaryeru, the Director of Global Partnerships, his voice echoed the resolute determination of an organisation committed to making a difference by confronting the pervasive issue of depression among African women.

Addressing the mental health crisis in Africa requires a comprehensive approach involving regulatory reforms, public awareness campaigns, investment in healthcare infrastructure, and the integration of mental health into primary healthcare systems.  Training staff at all levels, both pre-service and in-service, is essential, as is the involvement of community-driven NGOs.

The change champion, Gorret A, Mental Health Facilitator in Ugandan .

These NGOs play a vital role in empowering volunteers, especially women, with the knowledge and skills needed to effectively address mental health issues among women. By harnessing the transformative potential of therapy, Africa is making strides in combating mental health challenges and is determined to safeguard the well-being of its people for generations to come.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), depression will affect more women than men in 2023, with a prevalence of 4% among men and 6% among women.  Studies conducted by the World Economic Forum have revealed that depression is the leading cause of disability for African women, who are afflicted at twice the rate of men.

Africa is grappling with a significant mental health crisis, with millions affected by depression. Women, in particular, bear a heavy burden, experiencing depression at nearly twice the rate of men. However, societal stigma often prevents women from seeking help. StrongMinds recognises that depression is a natural response to life’s challenges, not a personal failing.

Volunteer of StrongMinds Speaking to people affected by depression in Ugandan.

The realisation that access to treatment for those suffering from mental illness was severely lacking prompted Sean Mayberry, a former diplomat and social marketer, to find a solution with the assistance of volunteers.

StrongMinds, a social enterprise founded in 2013, is at the forefront of addressing this issue through its therapy communities in Uganda and Zambia. 

The organisation has proven to be a significant force in combating mental health challenges in Africa.

StrongMinds employs a community-based approach, using Interpersonal Psychotherapy for Groups (IPTG), a World Health Organisation-recommended model. Several community members are trained to deliver this cost-effective therapy to low-income women and adolescents. In 11 years, StrongMinds has directly impacted close to 500,000 individuals, with 75% experiencing freedom from depression after therapy.

As his voice resonates with hope to combat stigma, the community-based organisation conducts psychoeducation sessions within communities. They engage key stakeholders, including community and faith-based leaders, and collaborate with local organisations and government agencies. Through radio campaigns and legislative advocacy, StrongMinds is working to integrate mental health into all facets of community life.

The director recounted their achievements. “StrongMinds has witnessed numerous success stories. Participants report regaining functionality, reconnecting with families, and rejoining the workforce. By creating a supportive community, StrongMinds provides a safety net for women, ensuring they have someone to turn to in times of need.“

Challenges and Overcoming Them:

Despite its successes, StrongMinds faces challenges. Overwhelming demand and limited resources remain significant hurdles. To address this, StrongMinds trains more volunteers, engages in strategic partnerships, and advocates for better mental health policies. StrongMinds aims to expand its reach, extending its services to more countries and communities. They are committed to sharing their learnings, promoting mental health awareness, and innovating new, more accessible treatment approaches. StrongMinds seeks to strengthen the global mental health ecosystem and increase visibility of the importance of mental health support.

Breaking the Silence: Strong Minds’ Battle Against Mental Health Stigma in Uganda Women across Africa face a silent enemy: the stigma of mental illness. In Uganda alone, where Strong Minds operates, the World Health Organisation reports that women under the age of 60 die as they battle with mental health issues compared to their male counterparts. But why?

Volunteer of StrongMinds Speaking to people affected by depression in Ugandan.

Misconceptions shackle these women, branding depression as a sign of weakness or even a curse.  “Depression is a human response to key things that can happen in life,” Ambrose explains. “It’s not a sign of weakness. It’s not a curse. It’s a reality that many women face.”

As the Programme Director of Strong Minds, Ambrose has seen firsthand the toll that mental illness takes on women across Uganda. But he’s also witnessed the power of community-based support in breaking the chains of stigma.

Survivors at the Refugee Camp in Northern Uganda

Prossy, a 30-year-old South Sudanese refugee, fled to Uganda with her four children to escape the civil war at home. However, upon reaching the Palabek refugee settlement, she discovered that her husband had taken on two additional wives. Overwhelmed with sadness and hopelessness, Prossy contemplated ending her life.

Fortunately, local women intervened and connected her with Vicky, a StrongMinds volunteer peer facilitator. Through StrongMinds therapy sessions, Prossy learned positive coping techniques, improved her communication skills, and reframed her challenges in a more self-affirming light.

As a result, Prossy regained her mental health, confidence, and sense of self-worth. She now takes better care of herself and her children, feeling stress-free and relaxed. Grateful for the support she received, Prossy encourages StrongMinds to reach out to more women in the settlement, offering them the opportunity for positive life changes.

From Survivors to Champions: The Transformative Journey of Strong Minds’ Beneficiaries

In the heart of Uganda, where the warmth of the sun often masks the struggles within, a silent revolution is taking place. Strong Minds, a nonprofit organisation, is changing lives, one woman at a time.

Ceelo Humusonde: A Journey from Darkness to Light

“When I got depressed, I was a very short-tempered person. I didn’t eat; I overslept. I was like, there’s nothing I’m going to do in this world that will make sense,” recalls Humusonde, her voice tinged with courage.

“I thought when I committed suicide, I would go and rest. I thought, in some way, they were going to help me financially. But I thank God they helped me with knowledge.”

From the depths of despair, Humusonde emerged as a new woman, empowered with knowledge and resilience. “Whenever I feel like I’m depressed, I go to my friend’s home, with whom I share what is troubling me, and then I get relief.”

Volunteer of StrongMinds Speaking to people affected by depression in Ugandan.

Driven by her own struggles, Humusonde became a peer facilitator, reaching 240 women in Lusaka, Zambia, determined to be a guiding light for others battling depression. “I want them to be healed from depression.”

Another beneficiary is Given Chifwande: From Darkness to Empowerment.

For Given Chifwande, depression felt like the end of the world. “It’s horrible. It doesn’t feel good. It feels like maybe it’s the end of the world. I never really thought that it would help me.”

But help did come, in the form of Strong Minds’ therapy sessions. “After learning the instruments, I had that courage. I know how to overcome whatever situation may come.”

Empowered by her own journey, Given became a beacon of hope for others. “I thought I would also give the experience that I had to others just to encourage them to do their things and to show them that there’s hope.”

Gorret’s Transformative Journey

Gorret A’s journey with Strong Minds began in 2016, but her battle with depression started long before. “The time I came to me Strong Minds, I was in a very bad state. But I couldn’t realise that I was in a bad state. And I also had suicidal thoughts.”

Separated from the father of her children, Gorret felt hopeless. “Because by then, I thought the best thing was to kill myself. And I would not accept leaving my children. I would die with my children.”

But Strong Minds offered her a lifeline. “I really felt I would be helped. So when I was called on to join Strong Minds as a mental health facilitator, I was so happy. Because I knew I would help so many other women out there.”

Gorret’s Mother’s Testimony:

Gorret’s mother noticed the change in her daughter. “This is a big difference. She was miserable. She was not eating anything.”

“But now, when she joins there, her mind is settled. She can take care of the kids. And even herself, she’s happy. I have the courage now. I’ve developed so many skills that I pass on to other women.”

Strong minds didn’t just save Gorret; they transformed her. “And I feel I’m now of benefit to society. Not only to my family, but even to the rest of the people out there.”

A Beacon of Hope

Ceelo, Given’s, and Gorret’s stories are just three among many. Through their courage and resilience, they’re not only transforming their own lives but also the lives of countless others in Uganda.

In Uganda, where the stigma surrounding mental health runs deep, StrongMinds is not just a therapy programme; it’s a movement. A movement of hope, of empowerment, of healing, and of transformation. From darkness to light, their beneficiaries are living testimonies to the power of resilience and community support.

In the fight against mental health stigma, StrongMinds is at the forefront, empowering African women to reclaim their lives. Through community-based solutions, advocacy, and innovation, StrongMinds is not only treating depression but also transforming communities. With a vision for a mentally healthier Africa, StrongMinds is paving the way for brighter, healthier futures for all.

Through education and awareness campaigns, they’re turning the tide against stigma. They’re not alone in this fight; they’re joined by community leaders, faith-based organisations, and even the Ugandan government. The Ministry of Health is making efforts to tackle the issue of mental health by advocating that it should not be neglected. Together, they’re rewriting the narrative of mental health.

Government Initiative in Tackling Mental Health in Africa

The Africa Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) introduced a new Mental Health Leadership Programme (AMHLP) aimed at tackling the mental health challenges faced by the African population.

“Through this significant initiative, the Africa CDC is taking a leading role in prioritising mental health on the policy agenda throughout Africa.“

“By establishing a group of leaders who are knowledgeable about and capable of advocating for evidence-based approaches to mental health that are tailored to the context, this programme will facilitate the development of more effective solutions to address the urgent needs of many,” stated Professor Miranda Wolpert, Director of Mental Health at Wellcome.

But StrongMinds still holds on in the fight of liberating women from the hands of mental health. They are reaching out to more people, recruiting more volunteers, forming important alliances, and coming up with creative ways to help those in need of mental health support. Despite the obstacles that still exist—the enormous burden of depression and the scarcity of resources—they still don’t give up.

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