Monday, March 16, 2009

Mental Health in Africa

It's tough enough to receive care for a physical illness in Africa. A story from the Associated Press shows just how difficult care is for mental illness.

Several factors stand in the way of the mentally ill receiving care. Poverty of course is a factor, either the ill are too poor to purchase care, or governments are too poor to provide it to the public.

Social stigmas against the mentally ill still exist in some areas. The ill may be treated less than humanely, being accused of being cursed or possessed. In some cases a mentally ill person will seek a witch doctor, only to suffer abuse from the witch doctors treatment.

In this AP article that we found in the International Herald Tribune we learn of some of the funding available for the mentally ill in Africa, and even catch glimpses of the abuse. Please be advised that our snippet is graphic.

In Kenya and many other African countries, poverty, lack of access and the stigma of mental disease prevent many patients from getting the help they desperately need. Despite some recent progress, just 0.01 percent of Kenya's health budget is spent on mental health, compared to around 6 percent in the U.S., for example.

Yet about a quarter of Kenyans seeking medical help have problems with mental health, says Dr. David Kiima, director of mental health. He estimates that about 10 percent of Kenya's people have mental health issues, and about 1 percent have disorders serious enough to warrant inpatient treatment.

The problem is worse in some other African countries such as Liberia, which suffered 15 years of brutal civil war and had numerous child soldiers. The World Health Organization says up to 85 percent of mentally ill people in the developing world never get treatment.

"The community does not see these people as human beings. They do not see their suffering," says Edah Maina, who heads the Kenya Society for the Mentally Handicapped.

Over the last seven years, the organization has forcefully taken more than 3,000 children and adults with mental disabilities from homes where they were abused. The organization tries to educate families to accept their mentally ill relatives back and treat them well. But some refuse, and the mentally ill may then end up in a government hospital for the rest of their lives.

The bland beige binders lining the walls in Maina's busy Nairobi office hide a litany of nightmares. In one photo, a 16-year-old autistic girl is led from a dark shed into the sun but can no longer see the light that warms her. After being locked up by her mother for 12 years, she has gone blind.

A grainy video shows a man with mental disabilities chained in a dog's kennel by his parents for a decade. In another incident, rescue workers open a corrugated iron door to reveal a chained, emaciated man with schizophrenia. His legs dangle uselessly after 15 years of malnutrition and confinement.

Countless other files show insects feeding on tied-up, swollen limbs and open sores festering under plastic bags used as diapers.

"Sometimes we can't sleep for days after an intervention," Maina admits.

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