Can tech offer a solution to Africa’s mental health crisis?

In October 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) released a report on the impact of Covid-19 on access to mental health services across Africa, and the figures are distressing. WHO surveyed 28 countries across the continent, finding that 37% had no funds for a Covid-19 mental health response plan, and another 37% only partially funded.

Making mental health work

During the coronavirus outbreak, demand for mental health services has spiked in several African countries, with issues like job losses, isolation and family bereavements among the reasons for higher stress levels. As WHO points out, 50% of the world’s countries with the highest suicide rates are located in Africa. Malawi has been pinpointed as having a “drastic rise” in suicide rates linked to the pandemic, rising 57% since last year.

There is, of course, no easy solution here. WHO’s Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti called for “more action to provide better mental healthcare information and education, to boost and expand services, and to enhance social and financial protection….”. But, with all due respect to Dr Moeti, those are endpoint goals, and there has been little guidance from WHO how to meet them.

Online therapy use rises during the pandemic

One area certainly worthy of exploration, however, is online therapy, sometimes referred to as telecounselling. Many companies across the globe now offer accessible mental health tools, and in-roads were being made in Africa before the pandemic hit. Options like BetterHelp are designed to be accessible anywhere in the world, regardless if you are based in Lilongwe or Long Island. However, it is just one of dozens of popular therapy apps now available.

There are also successful startups focused on, and created in, Africa. One such example is Wazi, which offers anonymous digital counselling through mediums like Facebook Messenger or Telegram. The Nairobi-based startup is aimed at helping Kenyans access support services, but recognising the stigma of mental health issues that remain in the country, Wazi has put secrecy at the heart of its platform. Referencing that with some irony, Wazi means “open” or “clear” in Swahili.

For Malawians, knowing that online therapy options are available is only beneficial if there is the infrastructure to support it. In a State of the Nation address, former President Peter Mutharika spoke about the country’s increased mobile and internet penetration, citing a rise in both from 2018 to 2019. The World Bank, in its most recent estimates, noted 14% of Malawians using the internet.

Internet access can help combat mental health crisis

It should be noted that the services available through counselling apps are not simply expensive one-to-one sessions with experienced doctors. Those are available, to be sure, but online mental health tools range from video calls to qualified psychiatrists to resource centers with pre-recorded videos and worksheets. Costs vary depending on the service offered, but some companies have moved to give free access to services during the pandemic.

Still, even if we know the options are available, accessing them should be a priority taken on by WHO and other stakeholders. Covid-19 has come up again and again when talking about the need to deliver affordable internet access to low-income Malawians. And, as WHO said, the pandemic is feeding into a mental health crisis that is putting traditional healthcare systems under immense strain. Technology could – and should – step into the breach. But it might need some help penetrating areas where people need it most.

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