There are a lot of misunderstandings surrounding mental health. For me one of the more serious ones is the belief that mental illness is “not really an illness” and that “people with mental health complaints should just shape up and get on with their lives”.
Statements of this kind are dangerous; they not only insult the patients and disregard their suffering, but on a larger scale it may lead to the importance of mental healthcare not being recognised.
When we examine the statistics, it is clear that mental illness is a serious threat to public health globally. It is estimated that more than 350 million people worldwide suffer from depression and in 2012 suicide was the 15th leading cause of death and the second leading cause of death for 15-29 year olds worldwide (WHO, 2016).
For this reason, and many more, I am happy that MSF is placing focus on mental health. Because of the nature of the programs MSF generally runs, the teams regularly encounter people with mental suffering, and there are staff trained and prepared to support them.
In Zimbabwe, MSF is placing extra focus on mental health. We are supporting the care of psychiatric patients in two programs; one in a psychiatric hospital in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Child Care, and the other in the psychiatric unit of a prison in collaboration with Zimbabwe Prisons and Correctional Services. I feel privileged to work in these programs together with a strong team of professionals.
In both locations, nurses, psychologists, psychiatrists, occupational therapists, social workers and other staff are working together in order to provide the patients with holistic care and educating the patients’ families on how to best support their family member with a mental illness. A goal of the activities is to provide the patient and the family with tools to support the mental health of the patient after discharge, and to avoid relapse and being readmitted to the hospital.
The next step in the program is to support the local polyclinics in providing basic psychiatric care to the patients. Over the last few months I have been visiting all the polyclinics in Harare with a team of two mental health nurses, a psychiatrist and two social workers, and we have supported the polyclinic staff in consulting the patients. So far, the feedback from the patients has been very positive.
Most psychiatric patients prefer to be consulted at their local clinic where the staff are more familiar to them instead of travelling a long way to a psychiatric hospital building. When patients feel more comfortable in seeking counselling, medication and information, and when it is easy for them to do so, it is very likely that the number of patients admitted to psychiatric units will decrease and patients’ and family members’ health and wellbeing will increase significantly.
It is very exciting work and I am happy to be part of it!