More Services Needed to Address Mental Health in Zambia

Mental Health in ZambiaMental health practices and research in Zambia are very limited; however, there have been more government and NGO efforts that aim to make mental health care a priority. Around 20% of mental disorders affect adult Zambians. The most prevalent disorders include schizophrenia, brain infections, alcoholism and psychotic episodes. Other triggers leading to mental health conditions share links to poverty.

Considering that 60% of Zambians are impoverished, obtaining adequate mental health care has often been challenging. For this reason, individuals diagnosed with mental health disorders are more likely to miss out on education and employment.

The current studies on mental health in Zambia have mainly focused on the following barriers that further prevent individuals from accessing care: policy, lack of professionals and funding. Moreover, the stigmatization of mental health at the community level has also prohibited many from seeking the necessary resources and increased the likelihood of violence and threats.

Mental Health Gaps in Zambia

In Zambia, mental health care funding accounts for less than 1% of the overall budget each year. Because of inadequate funding, it becomes more difficult to treat patients and provide proper psychiatric therapies. Additionally, budget constraints have made it hard to train skilled workers and provide more mental health care institutions within the country.

Only one hospital in the entire country is designated to treat individuals struggling with mental disorders and it is located in the capital city of Lusaka. Unfortunately, there are only three local psychiatrists for a population of 12 million. Another reason for having limited mental health care professionals is because of brain drain, where individuals leave their country of origin for better salaries and opportunities in other countries.

Until recently, the Zambian government relied on The 1951 Mental Disorders Act, which is seemingly outdated and dehumanizes patients with mental problems by referring to them under derogatory names. On the other hand, due to stigmatization, mental health treatment is not offered at primary health care institutions, but rather at classified psychiatric hospitals. As of 2022, a “National Health Strategic Plan” has been in the works to strengthen and integrate affordable health practices in primary health care, advance facility development and promote better resources and training for mental health care professionals.

Advocating for Better Mental Health for Zambians

Along with the legislation, a few NGOs have been working towards improving mental health services through different practices and helping individuals cope with mental struggles without stigma. The Zambia Therapeutic Art (ZTA) organization has worked closely towards developing the best psychosocial approaches that are aligned with the legislation of the Ministry of Health in Zambia. The ZTA offers a short-term course for new professionals working in mental health enabling them to work with a variety of patients.

Initially, the ZTA solely focuses on therapeutic art, where vulnerable patients can use artistic expression as a healthy outlet. This way of mental practice allows for no judgment and helps to communicate and understand one’s emotions better. So far, over 500 mental health professionals have gained practical skills through this course with feedback on how this form of therapy has impacted their patients in different ways.

During COVID-19, the form of teletherapy was increasingly liked because people were able to speak to a counselor on the phone without confrontation. More than 1,000 women were being helped through teletherapy during the pandemic, creating a safe space for vulnerability. With more licensed professionals in the field, advanced methods of treatment can help allocate individuals who are suffering from mental issues in Zambia.

Future Outlooks

While there is still a stigmatization of mental health in Zambia, small steps have been taken to minimize this barrier and help individuals that need mental health care. Organizations like the ZTA have dedicated their work to educating and developing creative practices to limit these gaps in mental health access. With greater support from the government to recreate legislation and for the country to educate more mental health providers, Zambians can foresee a better future for their well-being and state of mind.

Alessandra Amati
Photo: Flickr