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Mental health timebomb explodes

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HEALTH experts say the Covid-19 pandemic has aggravated mental health issues and stress-related illnesses, amid fears that the impact of lockdowns will go beyond mere economic disruption. 

NHAU MANGIRAZI
While the pandemic stretched the country’s health facilities due to the failure to invest in the sector, mental health issues have been relegated to the periphery as attention turned to the pandemic.

The coronavirus pandemic and attendant difficulties have resulted in an increase in mental health problems.

Experts are concerned that mental illnesses are not getting the attention they deserve, as communities struggle to cope with the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Thembile Gola, clinical and operations director with Consolidated Africa Services, a private voluntary organisation, said the stress-related issues had been worsened by the lack of social interaction during the lockdown as the government and scientists encouraged social distancing to contain the spread of the virus. 

Gola added that people who suffered loss of loved ones, employment and domestic abuse linked to Covid-19 were more likely to suffer stress-related illnesses.

‘‘Covid-19 saw many losing employment, igniting depression as domestic abuse cases spiked. Covid-19 was a curse to our traditionalism as it changed our way of life. People were forced to bury their loved ones differently. It is unfortunate that as cruel as it may be to not be able to bury like we were used to, it is the only way we can protect each other during this time,’’ Gola said. 

‘‘During the Covid-19 lockdown people were not able to meet physically to implement programmes in the communities and no one had a chance to help those affected by burnout and stress that lead to mental torture.’’ 

Gola said Covid-19 had laid bare the deep-seated inefficiencies of the public health system, with the government failing to invest in mental health support.

‘‘The Covid-19 pandemic has put the Zimbabwe mental health strategy to the test during this period. Our health system, working with stakeholders within the mental health space, has been trying its best under the circumstances to serve the people although there is still a lot of work to be done. There was a quick adaptation to tele-counselling and an increase in help-seeking behaviours. These are positive reactions thus far,’’ added Gola.

Zimbabwe has 17 psychiatrists to cater for a population of 15 million people, highlighting the government’s failure to prioritise mental health support.  

The country also has a few public mental health institutions, which do not even provide support for conditions like stress. Gola added that there is a need to integrate mental health practitioners into the public health system to enhance the accessibility of services.

Psychiatrist Nemache Mawere said the country’s health system, especially the mental health side, has suffered from brain drain.

‘‘Locally, the sector is affected by human resources as there are mass resignations of trained personal leaving for the United Kingdom and other international markets where mental health professionals are in demand and paid handsomely,’’ Mawere said. 

Health experts say mental illness is treatable if detected early.

Angela Chiketa Mkoringo, chief executive officer of Zimbabwe Obsessive Compulsive Disorder Trust, who is also Global Mental Health Peer Network country representative, said stigma has become a major hurdle in tackling mental health issues. 

‘‘Mental health issues are sensitive; hence we must not stigmatise those suffering from mental illness. While it difficult to ascertain numbers, the numbers have gone up during Covid-19 period. Men and women are affected the same, but women are more open about their challenges and seek help on time,’’ Mkoringo said. 

Manicaland proportional representative legislator Constance Chihururu said Covid-19 had worsened the toll on communities such as Chimanimani and Chipinge which were affected by Cyclone Idai, resulting in mental illnesses rising.

“The worst affected are women and girls who got pregnant during the Covid-19 crisis. Some of them were dumped and were seen as a disgrace resulting in pressure mounting on them,” she said.
The government launched the country’s mental health policy in April 2019.

The policy’s main thrust is to “promote early identification, treatment, rehabilitative and palliative services in non-communicable diseases.”

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