Mental Health in ZambiaPoverty is widespread in Zambia, a country in southern Africa. It is estimated that 54.4% of the nation’s population lives below the poverty line. For this reason, alongside a lack of access to treatment, mental health in Zambia is of great concern to many nonprofits and individuals around the globe. 

5 Facts About Mental Health in Zambia

  1. Lack of mental health professionalsAccording to the 2020 Mental Health Atlas composed by the World Health Organization (WHO), the country only had 760 mental health professionals in total, measuring just 4.26 professionals per 100,000 people in the population. This is compared to the fact that Zambia has a population of more than 20 million in 2022. The study also estimated that the country has just 10 psychiatrists, 15 psychologists and 425 mental health nurses for the entire country. Furthermore, the nation has just one psychiatric hospital, known as Chainama Hills Hospital. This facility is located in Zambia’s capital of Lusaka. These numbers are simply insufficient to treat mental health in Zambia.
  2. Stigma around mental health disorders –  High levels of stigmatization against mental health disorders may make it less likely for people to seek treatment. Most patients in Chainama Hills Hospital do not have any contact with family or friends. Furthermore, many residents in the hospital are abandoned by their families. It is believed that much of this stigma is due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of mental illness. It is also believed that education plans and new policies on mental health would be able to deal with the issue of stigmatization as well as overall mental health in Zambia.
  3. Lack of resources to train mental health professionals – Along with Zambia’s lack of mental health professionals, the country has limited resources to train new ones. Zambia does not have any graduate programs in mental health. The only way to become a psychiatrist is to study abroad, and most students who go abroad do not return to Zambia. There are also no graduate programs for other mental health professions such as psychologists and social workers. In addition, of the 40 students who graduate from the country’s only medical school each year, about half go to work abroad, and an even smaller amount stay to specifically study in areas related to mental health.
  4. Only a select few mental disorders are treated – Almost all admissions to Zambia’s sole psychiatric hospital are for psychotic disorders, such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder and for psychotic breaks. These disorders are almost exclusively treated by medication rather than talk therapy. Disorders such as depression and anxiety are rarely treated unless the patient displays psychotic traits.
  5. Nonprofits help to bridge the gap – As of 2022, there are many groups working to improve mental health in Zambia. One such group is StrongMinds. StrongMinds is a nonprofit working to treat depression on a large scale in Africa. The NGO offers free group talk therapy to women and children living in poverty in Zambia. It has treated an estimated 260,000 people, with 80% of patients being depression-free after six months of treatment. Another organization is Zambia Therapeutic Art (ZTA). The charity offers a course on therapeutic art to help treat mental illness in Zambia. As of 2020, it has trained 250 individuals in therapeutic art, who can then apply this type of therapy to those battling mental illness in Zambia.

Governmental Efforts

The country’s government has been working to implement new mental health resources. In 2019, the Mental Health Act was enacted with the goal of improving and upholding the rights and livelihoods of people living with mental illness. The act also calls for the establishment of a Mental Health Council in the country and to provide mental health treatment to those residing in prisons. In addition, The act repealed the 1949 Mental Disorders Act, which used outdated language to categorize those with mental disorders. 

– Emma Glas
Photo: Flickr

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