Burkina Faso, the “land of honest men,” is a West African country with a population of 22.1 million. It is one of the poorest 10 countries in the world. As a result of terrorism, internal conflict has internally displaced almost 2 million people, and the U.N. estimates that nearly 5 million Burkinabes need humanitarian aid. Doctors Without Borders has called it the “world’s fastest-growing humanitarian crisis.” Mental health in Burkina Faso is a severe but underrated concern caused largely by violence and poverty.
The State of Mental Health in Burkina Faso
Due to the trauma of witnessing ongoing conflict, displacement or living in perpetual hunger, many Burkinabes suffer psychologically. Unfortunately, low mental health awareness breeds stigma and ignorance.
As of 2021, the government has not yet provided any human or financial resources for the mental health policy they passed in 2020. Mental health remains a largely unexplored subject in Burkina Faso as only 2% of the country’s research output deals with it. The Mental Health Atlas shows that Burkina Faso only has 103 mental health professionals, indicating a significant lack of expertise in this area.
Additionally, internal conflict has affected more than 600 health facilities and shut down 211, some of which provided crucial mental health services. This makes it more difficult to access psychological support, especially in remote areas.
Children are deeply affected by poverty and poor mental health in Burkina Faso. The conflict has pushed more than 1 million children out of classes, making them more vulnerable to psychological harm and causing many behavioral anomalies. This is exacerbated by the prevalence of violence in many economically stressed homes, which almost half of the 360 child participants in a 2016 study had experienced. Violence contributes to depression, trauma and low self-esteem.
On the Frontlines of Improving Burkinabes’ Mental Health
The Mental Health Atlas observed a 112-time increase in the number of community-based mental health services per 100,000 people between 2014 and 2020, suggesting that many citizens are seeking help, even if not through hospitalization.
Abroad, USAID and the EU have pledged $175 million (in 2021) and €25.5 million (in 2023) in humanitarian aid to Burkina Faso, respectively. Much of this is dedicated to human rights, food security and health care, and often funds local efforts to improve Burkinabes’ quality of life.
USAID and the EU have yet to dedicate funds to mental health initiatives in particular. However, improving living conditions and reducing violence preemptively protects Burkinabes against the trauma that contributes to many of their psychological struggles.
In particular, USAID provided furniture to 20 schools in Tatao and 30 in Fada, Gayeri and Matiacoali. This enabled the schools to accommodate more than 5,000 displaced children, creating a routine and sense of childhood amidst extreme turbulence.
Leyla Ismayilova, a University of Chicago researcher, is similarly on the frontlines of improving child mental health outcomes. Her 2017 study revealed that family counseling improved parent–child relationships and decreased symptoms of depression, trauma and low self-esteem in participating children. This suggests that culturally sensitive, relationship-driven mental health interventions have significant potential.
Burkina Faso is facing significant challenges in addressing mental health issues. Despite limited resources and expertise, there has been a noticeable rise in community-based mental health services, indicating an increase in awareness and willingness to seek help. Aid from organizations such as USAID and the EU has had a positive impact, improving living conditions and providing stability for displaced children. The work of researchers like Leyla Ismayilova offers hope for culturally sensitive interventions that can effectively enhance mental health outcomes for Burkinabes.
– Faye Crawford