Groups working to improve mental health care in Africa

KAMPALA, Uganda — The drugs given to many of Africa’s psychiatric patients are often administered to keep the patients asleep so the harried nurses can get some rest, and those who cannot sleep may have their hands or feet tied up.

Yet these patients may be considered lucky, because across Africa most of those who need psychiatric care don’t ever get it. Caregivers are few and health facilities even fewer, tragic circumstances on a continent where armed conflict, disease, and rampant poverty have left millions of people traumatized and in urgent need of professional help.

Now, thanks in part to a US-based organization founded by the family of a young man killed in the 9/11 attacks, African psychiatrists and mental health experts are determined to change what they all agree is the alarming condition of mental health care across the continent. Experts are meeting in the Ugandan capital this week to press their governments to spend more on mental health care, as well as train caregivers to treat patients with knowledge and compassion.


The Peter C. Alderman Foundation, which underwrote the conference in Kampala, says it seeks to build ‘‘mental health capacity in post-conflict countries,’’ especially by training caregivers and running clinics that treat thousands of patients each year. The conference drew more than 500 participants, including scores of African students who hope to swell the ranks of a specialty that seldom attracts the attention of sub-Saharan Africa’s impoverished governments.

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Across Africa, researchers say, the mentally ill are getting poor or no care, and often are treated with the kind of stigma usually reserved for prisoners. The attitude toward mental illness is sometimes reinforced by ignorance about what causes it and how it should be treated, they say. And those fortunate enough to get admitted to a hospital are not likely to get the attention they need, often because there are too few doctors and nurses.

Uganda, a country of 33 million people, has only 33 qualified psychiatrists. This also is the case in neighboring Kenya, with only 83 qualified physicians and about 40 million people, according to the University of Nairobi’s David Ndetei, who attended the conference. Ndetei, who is attending the Kampala conference as director of the Nairobi-based Africa Mental Health Foundation, said Africa’s biggest challenge is spreading mental health care to the family level in professional care that would help ease the stigma associated with mental illness. Only 4 percent of those with mental illness have access to treatment in Kenya, he said.