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Mobile Applications Aiding Mental Health in AfricaAccording to the International Review of Psychiatry, nearly 70% of African countries spend less than 1% of their health funds on psychiatric aid and substantially overlook the mental, neurological and addiction disorders affecting the population. However, the rapid development of smartphone technology and mobile applications—generally known as apps—has gradually provided aid to the African population’s mental health.

Since traditional one-to-one basis mental health care methods are not always available in developing countries, the World Health Organization states that mobile health technologies are beneficial resources for underserved individuals without access to mental health resources in developing countries such as Africa. With such a large variety of apps, varying from patient self-assessment to virtual sessions with healthcare specialists, support is offered to those who have access to any mobile devices. Here are three mobile applications aiding mental health in Africa.

3 Mobile Applications Aiding Mental Health in Africa

  1. The mental health Global Action Programme Intervention Guide app (mhGAP): As created by the World Health Organization, the service delivery tool known as mhGAP comprises numerous features that support those with mental, neurological and substance abuse (MNS) in low- and middle-income countries. The interactive, user-friendly app identifies multiple clinical care options catered to patients’ conditions varying from depression, psychosis, suicide and more. Additionally, the app encourages cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), a problem-solving therapy used to alter patients’ distorted thinking to further modify behavior through self-direction and assessment.
  2. WhatsApp—An Instant Messaging app: WhatsApp, an instant short messaging service (SMS) used by approximately half of mobile phone users in Kenya and over a million users in South Africa, allows users to virtually receive quality assurance and comprehensive information through text messages, photos, video and other multimedia. According to the South African Journal of Psychology, mobile messaging services have become just as, if not more, popular than telephone calls. It is also stated that SMS services are comparatively inexpensive resources that can potentially improve adherence to therapy and can drastically enhance relations between patients and doctors. WhatsApp and other SMS apps alike are possible solutions to strengthen the therapeutic alliance, yet further research is to be conducted to confirm such findings.
  3. MEGA mobile app—Mental health services for children and adolescents: The MEGA project, an effort co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union, has developed a mental health assessment app designed for primary healthcare (PHC) specialists serving children and adolescents affected by mental disorders in countries such as South Africa and Zambia. MEGA states that areas with a concentration of poor and ethnic minorities are highly vulnerable to poor environmental conditions, especially adolescents who are affected both directly and indirectly. Therefore, non-communicable disease prevention and treatment are highly encouraged by the MEGA project. The app has the potential to benefit PHC workers with the provision of adequate tools to screen mental health problems, such as depression, in adolescents.

These three mobile apps, and many others alike, are convenient forms of technology that have the potential to improve mental health conditions in Africa and other regions around the world. The implementation of mobile applications into psychiatric practice can provide patients with the utmost care by utilizing thorough assessment, open communication and careful supervision, which can ultimately save lives.

Isabella Socias
Photo: Flickr 

Mental Health in South Africa
While a 2019 report from the South African College of Applied Psychology painted a bleak portrait of mental health in South Africa, the country has recently seen promising innovations in telehealth, offering South Africans struggling with mental health new avenues for accessing vital resources and support.

Telehealth is Expanding Access to Mental Health Care

A severe shortage of mental health professionals creates a bottleneck to receiving psychiatric care in South Africa – currently, the country has only one psychiatrist for every 100,000 people. Where South Africa is experiencing a shortage of mental health workers, a report by the U.S. Health Resources and Services administration (NHRS) outlines the ability of telehealth services to increase patient access to healthcare professionals. By allowing providers the ability to deliver care from anywhere, the report said, telemental health is able to significantly expand the capacity of existing staff.

In South Africa’s rural areas, the large obstacles to care that patients currently face include the cost of transport and long distances. According to the NHRS’s report, telemental health addresses both of these obstacles, promising to reduce the cost of delivery both for the provider and the patient, both of whom stand to benefit financially from time saved and from no longer needing to pay for travel.

The South Africa Depression Anxiety Group (SADAG)

One telehealth technology, implemented by the country’s largest mental health support and advocacy group – the South Africa Depression Anxiety Group (SADAG) –  allows patients to speak or instant message directly with mental health professionals via a mobile phone or landline. When South Africa’s COVID-19 lockdown first began, SADAG saw calls to its helpline double. In September 2020, the organization was still receiving around 1,400 calls a day, an increase in the volume of 53% from the previous year.

To handle this influx of patients, SADAG has set up WhatsApp support groups, moderated by the organization’s counselors, and moved all of its day-to-day operations online. With 96% of South Africans now able to access either a landline or mobile phone, SADAG’s decision to shift its services to the digital sphere offers an alternative to in-person care for South Africans coping with mental illness.

SADAG has also recently launched a toll-free mental health hotline that gives nonprofit workers 24-hour access to mental health services, citing the need to provide “psychological first aid” to nonprofit workers who have experienced  “unprecedented strain and burden” during the pandemic.

The MEGA Project

The MEGA Project, a consortium of nine universities spread across Europe and Africa, is another organization focused on using technology and the internet to expand access to mental health services in South Africa. Through a mobile application, the project aims to offer primary care providers a screening tool to monitor children and adolescents for early warning signs of mental illness, hoping to increase the mental health literacy of these providers in the process. This technology, though still in its early stages of development, is one of the many innovations offering the potential to increase the capacity of South Africa’s overburdened mental health care sector.

Breaking Down Barriers of Geography and Stigma

Telepsychiatry not only helps patients overcome geographical barriers to receiving care but also breaks down the barriers that stigma creates. In South Africa, family, friends and health care workers often perpetuate stigma and misunderstandings around mental health. By giving access to mental health resources outside of a socioculturally insulated community, one study suggests that telepsychiatry can also overcome these stigma-related barriers in offering South Africans the possibility to interact with non-stigmatizing perspectives. According to the same study, telemental health services also mitigate stigmas that exist around older adults attending in-person sessions.

Professors Call for Increased Government Attention

In an op-ed penned alongside two University of Ghana public health professors and published in eNCA, one of the most popular news networks in South Africa, professor of global mental health and development at the University of Cape Town Crick Lund has called for increased attention by governments to the issue of mental health in African countries, and particularly in South Africa.

Pointing out that only 15% of South Africans with mental health conditions ever receive treatment, Lund called on governments to invest in mental health surveys as well as treatment and argued that this investment in mental health not only would improve health outcomes but would pay economic dividends.

Technology “must… be used to deliver mental health services in times of public health emergencies,” the op-ed argues. The professors added that investment in these technological innovations offers governments the opportunity to make “training for and practice of mental healthcare attractive and relevant.

“Underpinning all our recommendations is sufficient and timely mental health financing,” the professors wrote. “This requires a multi-sectoral strategy that shows the health and economic benefits of investing in mental health in Africa.”

– Coalter Palmer
Photo: Wikipedia Commons