Mental Illness in EthiopiaEthiopia is the second most populated country in Africa, with a population of over 100 million. With such a large population comes a prevalence of poverty as well as disease. In an estimate from 2014, around 30% of Ethiopia’s population was below the poverty line. According to statistics from this year, Ethiopia also makes it onto the list of the world’s poorest countries, ranking 7th poorest in the world in both GDP growth and GDP per capita. Along with this poverty comes a myriad of diseases. The top four causes of death in Ethiopia are, in order, neonatal diseases, diarrheal diseases, lower respiratory infections and tuberculosis. While these diseases are quite well-known, Ethiopia is also plagued by another type of disease: mental illness. Mental illness in Ethiopia may not be as recognized as the other diseases that plague Ethiopian citizens but mental illness can impact overall general health and the ability to provide for one’s family.

A Troubled Past

Despite the fact that an estimated 15% of Ethiopians suffer from mental illness and substance abuse disorders, for decades almost nothing was done to address or treat these issues. In the 1980s, there was only one psychiatric hospital in the entire country and such an insignificant number of psychiatrists, that it was almost impossible to find treatment. Moreover, the psychiatrists who did practice at the time were often not interested in developing new research and treatment techniques. Because of this, most cases of mental illness went untreated, leaving mental health sufferers to face both isolation and discrimination.

A Passionate Doctor

When Dr. Atalay Alem started his medical work, there was only one psychiatric hospital in the country. After his decades of work, spanning from the 1980s until modern day, his efforts to improve the psychiatric treatment of Ethiopians have had a massive payoff. He started as a medical doctor before receiving his degree in psychiatry. After that, he became a psychiatric professor at Addis Ababa University, where his research and his passion for better mental health services were instrumental in the expansion of Ethiopia’s mental health care. Alem was also a key founder of the graduate psychiatry program at Addis Ababa University, giving more Ethiopians a chance to make a difference in the field. Today, there are almost 90 psychiatrists practicing in Ethiopia. Apart from these psychiatrists, there are hundreds of psychiatric nurses as well. These nurses are part of what has made such widespread psychiatric care possible and their presence has aided in the addition of mental health services at most Ethiopian hospitals. For his efforts, Alem was awarded the Harvard Award in Psychiatric Epidemiology and Biostatistics in 2019.

A Positive Future

Though Ethiopia has a total of under 100 psychiatrists, the current number is a great improvement from just a few decades ago. Moreover, with the help of Alem and other passionate psychiatrists, research efforts continue to grow. Alem is currently working on a study that looks at the way severe mental illness impacts rural Ethiopian communities in order to evaluate how to improve treatment and maximize impact. The Ethiopian government is also invested in improving the diagnosis and treatment of mental illness. The government, starting seven years ago, created a mental health strategy to aid the country’s mentally ill and allocated government funds to the overall improvement of mental healthcare. These funds have gone toward improving health services, such as more adequate healthcare training and increased access to psychiatric medications. Part of the reason Ethiopia’s mental health treatment has improved so much is due to the partnership between the Ethiopian government and the World Health Organization. WHO was absolutely key in providing guidelines for how to implement these new mental health care strategies.

Though progress always takes time, with the help of doctors like Alem and partnerships with organizations like WHO, Ethiopian mental health care has better days ahead.

Lucia Kenig-Ziesler
Photo: Flickr