AAS Open Research

Coordinating an African mental health response strategy during COVID-19

The Developing Excellence, Leadership and Training in Science in Africa (DELTAS Africa) programme, funds Africa-based scientists to amplify the development of world-class research and scientific leadership on the continent while strengthening African institutions. DELTAS Africa is implemented through the AESA Platform. AESA (Alliance for Accelerating Excellence in Science in Africa) is a funding, agenda-setting, programme management initiative of the African Academy of Sciences (AAS), the African Union Development Agency (AUDA-NEPAD), founding and funding global partners, and through a resolution of the summit of African Union Heads of Governments. DELTAS Africa is supported by Wellcome and the United Kingdom Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO formerly DFID). The ongoing DELTAS Africa is a USD 100 million programme, funding eleven consortia spanning 54 institutions from Africa and 24 European institutions.

DELTAS Africa’s goal is to produce researchers with the capacity to publish and lead locally relevant and high-quality research to impact health science, policy, and practice in Africa. To achieve this, the DELTAS Africa Theory of Change (TOC) is predicated on building research leadership through supporting growth of excellent research environments, scientific citizenship, research training and scientific quality.

This blog series explores how the eleven DELTAS Africa funded consortia were able to leverage on the TOC and pivot in real time to support an Africa-wide response to COVID-19, influencing research and policy across the continent and beyond.

In this blog post, we explore the effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on mental health in Africa and how the DELTAS Africa-funded African Mental Health Research Initiative (AMARI) has responded by offering support and engaging communities in educational campaigns to reduce the gap in resources in the future.

COVID-19 and mental health in Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic is having an unprecedented negative impact on mental health. Common mental health disorders such as depression and anxiety are on the upsurge, coupled with fear of infection and death. This trend is arguably worse in Africa because of existing, acute healthcare deficiencies.

Africa’s response to the pandemic has been in some cases uncoordinated and lacking a holistic approach. For example, social isolation and lockdown restrictions resulted in increased rates of intimate partner violence and stress-related conditions, but there was no coordinated system in place to refer or provide simple interventions to manage mental health challenges such as depression and anxiety, as well as others linked to COVID-19.

AMARI is using its expertise to help in the COVID-19 response, specifically by providing support in the field of mental health. AMARI currently has a pool of mental health professionals in Ethiopia, Malawi, South Africa, Zimbabwe and the UK who are actively involved in the COVID-19 response. Some of these professionals – including AMARI fellows – are working closely with the WHO and various policy stakeholders in offering mental health support throughout the pandemic.

As part of its initial response strategy, AMARI hosted a series of webinars that aimed to prioritize mental health during the pandemic.

Engaging communities and improving mental health outcomes

AMARI is further working to engage communities, policy makers and the health sector in improving mental health outcomes during COVID-19. Most notably, AMARI held a virtual engagement programme in Zimbabwe during the period July–October 2020, partnering with various stakeholders from the media, health services, theatre and arts. These partnerships resulted in four radio programmes that were broadcast on Zimbabwe’s biggest radio station – Star FM Zimbabwe – addressing selected mental health thematic areas in relation to COVID-19:

Some listeners sent messages on the WhatsApp platform during and after the live radio programmes, sharing their experiences and seeking mental health support. These individuals were referred to the Friendship Bench which is offering online psycho-social support during the pandemic. This programme had significant impact as the Friendship Bench recorded an increase in the number of people who sought help from the platform’s online services during the span of the programme. 

As a reservoir in African mental health research with fellows scattered across the continent, AMARI researchers are contributing their knowledge in books, publications and Information, Education and Communication (IEC) materials on mental health during COVID-19. Notably in Malawi, PhD researcher, Mwawi Ngoma contributed to a book titled: ‘Malawi Quick Guide to Mental Health: Mental Health in Malawi during the COVID-19 Pandemic’. Ngoma also developed and produced a leaflet on mental health and psychological first aid for people in isolation centres.

AMARI researchers continue to champion various mental health during COVID-19 activities, including workshops and webinars.

In Ethiopia, AMARI researchers have been involved in work around prevention and care of psychosocial adversities of the COVID-19 pandemic. These activities included tasks to intervene in psychosocial aspects of COVID-19 through mainstream media, social media including YouTube, and face-to-face counselling.

Looking ahead – ensuring preparedness for future crises

The increase in the number of people seeking mental health services and support clearly indicates that the pandemic is having a negative impact on mental health.

Work that AMARI has been involved in reveals that online platforms can be used effectively to offer mental health support during pandemics, evidenced in research conducted by AMARI scientists in collaboration with the Friendship Bench. Therefore, in future crises, online platforms could be used as part of a mental health response strategy to pandemics.

AMARI has managed to offer mental health support and improve mental health outcomes during COVID-19 through the array of activities that it is involved in, especially across its four AMARI countries. Through these engagements, AMARI informed and educated communities on best practices to care for mental health patients during COVID-19, thereby greatly improving understanding of the impact of COVID-19. The guidelines that AMARI researchers have developed or contributed to have added to the response strategy for COVID-19, thereby addressing the gap in resources and overall response opportunities for future outbreaks of a similar scale of COVID-19. AMARI is hopeful that the guidelines – still under development – will be adopted by healthcare sectors in the four African AMARI countries.

There is still a lot that needs to be done regarding epidemic preparedness. There is a strong need for policy makers together with the healthcare sector to review existing policies to ensure epidemic preparedness is in line with lessons learnt from COVID-19. These policies should then be implemented across the board.