woman helped by Inuka

Investing in mental health will help us move forwards together

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an alarming effect on mental health. More so in developing countries as economic insecurity compounds the effects of lockdown. This is then magnified by grief, isolation, anxiety, absence of social support structures and the social stigma which sufferers experience. With 90% of people unable to get the mental health care they need in developing countries, access to psychosocial support was already limited, but social distancing has exasperated the situation. According to a report by Plan, 90 percent of girls and young women are experiencing higher levels of anxiety due to COVID-19.

Social enterprise Inuka is among five organisations chosen by the Dutch government's Small Business Innovative Research programme to further develop its innovative digital mental health solution. Inuka means ‘arise’ in the Kiswahili langauge. As one of just 12 psychiatrists in Zimbabwe for a population of 16 million, cofounder Dr Dixon Chibanda turned to training grandmothers to act as community counsellors. Together with the mental health organisation StrongMinds, Inuka is making remote mental health support a reality in Uganda. StrongMinds use phone-based technology tools for group tele-therapy and Inuka provides chat-based coaching via mobile phone. 

Overcoming depression

StrongMinds focusses on group therapy for women with depression. The organisation estimates that 66 million women in Africa suffer from depression, around twice as many as men. Mental health impacts their ability to work and care for their children. Helping women to overcome depression therefore has a positive economic impact and improves school attendance in their children. This breaks the downward spiral and has a knock on effect on the next generation.

The StrongMinds method remains accessible and affordable by training volunteers to continue the work of professionals once a project is up and running. Research by the John Hopkins University has shown interpersonal group therapy to be very successful. StrongMinds operates in Uganda and Zimbabwe and is looking to expand its operations by working with other NGOs.

Prioritising action in mental health

On average governments spend just 2 percent of their health budgets on mental health. And only 1 percent of health budgets for development cooperation go to providing mental health care. With close to a billion people suffering from mental health issues and suicide claiming 800,000 lives a year, the WHO has teamed up with the United for Global Mental Health and the World Federation for Mental Health to urge the world to prioritise action on and investment in mental health on Mental Health Day 10 October 2020.

The Inuka method is reaching millions of Africans and helping them to carry on in these challenging times. This helps them to continue moving forwards together. Ankiza Gakunu, Inuka Africa CEO says:

"We have also been working with companies in Kenya , Uganda and Nigeria during the Covid-19 pandemic who aim to improve their employees' health and productivity as they struggle with adjusting to working from home and balancing a growing number of family and financial pressures. As we continue to scale across Africa, our mission is to  impact the lives of millions of Africans with mental and emotional support through Inuka mobile App by 2022."

Last year, the Dutch government committed itself to extending its humanitarian aid package to include mental psychosocial support (MPSS). At the time, there was no indication that one year on, the world would be facing a major pandemic and mental health issues would soar.

But there is good news, according to the WHO crises often create an opportunity to set up sustainable health systems. And as we have seen many times, the pandemic has led to incredible innovations. By putting our minds to it, we can help people to become more resilient and united to weather the future challenges we face.

Photo: Inuka Africa

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