Zim must prioritise mental health

HARARE - The Zimbabwe government does not seem to proritise issues of mental health, if statistics are anything to go by.

Government statistics show that one in every four Zimbabweans suffers from mental illness, including those suffering from depression.

The creation of Friendship Benches located in the grounds of clinics around Harare, Gweru and Chitungwiza — as reported in our sister paper the Daily News on Sunday — appears to be a step in the right direction in efforts to help patients suffering from depression and anxiety, clearly moderate cases of mental illness.

At least 30 000 people have received mental health care through Friendship Benches, in the last six months, a figure that highlights the extent of mental illness in Zimbabwe.

However, since the country has only 13 psychiatrists and 12 clinical psychologists, it is the health grannies at the Friendship Benches who are leading the fight against depression.

Critically, it appears what these Benches do is to provide someone to talk to, someone those suffering from depression can share their problems with, a service they can easily get within their own communities if they had a different attitude towards mental illness. Instead, communities resort to ostracising those with mental illnesses or at times even tying them to trees.

If anything the patients’ illness may be exacerbated because essentially they have not been able to find someone with whom to share their problem before other medical interventions are sought.

What government should do now, besides rolling the intervention out to other areas of the country, is to help capacitate these Benches through further specialised training and improvement of the facilities so that they can cater for more patients who may need help.

This innovative approach has great potential to significantly improve the lives of millions of people with moderate and severe mental health problems where access to treatment is limited or nonexistent.

Also of great interest is the HIV component of the Friendship Bench since a lot of people living with the virus suffer from depression which if not treated worsen the outcome of the HIV itself as its progression can be hastened.

Zimbabwe has witnessed an increase in the consumption of substances like Bron Cleer and all sorts of cough syrups, mbanje (marijuana), lately cocaine, which are being brought in illegally and are abundant in our communities, making the establishment of these Friendship Benches a worthy development in relatively poor societies like Zimbabwe.

The issue of mental health remains crucial and mental health services must be readily available by taking mental health to the communities.

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