Belgian Platform for International Health    ENG | FR

Be-cause health matters 14

Mental health voices from Africa: experiences and lessons learned

Opening address by Her Majesty The Queen to the virtual conference

Ladies and Gentlemen,

The COVID-19 pandemic and the lockdown have shown how helpless each of us can be when faced with stress and anxiety resulting from uncertainty, isolation or sudden loss of employment and income. If left untreated, these in turn can lead to severe depression, violence or self-destructive behaviour.

But the pandemic has also raised awareness of our vulnerabilities and the need to pay attention to them. We need to use this to make a stronger case for good mental health for all, and to convince the most reluctant. Today’s conference is undoubtedly part of these efforts.

During my visits in the field, especially in Africa, as a UN Sustainable Development Goals Advocate, I always put mental health issues on my agenda. It is indeed one of my priorities.

I have been fortunate enough to meet dedicated carers, often working in precarious conditions, and families who were fully committed to caring for a child. I realised that we must also be sensitive to certain sensitivities. But the concern to protect human dignity should be at the centre of our concerns.

Efforts to end stigma and remove taboos should therefore continue unabated and be expanded. Without this, it will take a long time for discrimination, which is a barrier to access to care, to disappear. Without this, it will be difficult to implement effective actions to prevent and treat mental disorders, to increase resilience and to offer each person who needs it the required advice or appropriate care. Targeted, modulated, accessible campaigns and information through the media, education, the health sector, communities, and businesses have already proved successful. They are also successful because they have been developed in consultation with those directly affected, as well as those around them, and take into account their concerns and their vision of their place in society.

How can we organise access for all those who need it to counselling and, where necessary, to specific care, under conditions that guarantee respect for human rights? The answers to this question also require cross-cutting reflection and action. These could focus on resources, on the extension of health coverage, on the accessibility of information, on existing self-help networks, on the diversity of responses to be provided according to local situations, on the role and training of the various stakeholders. Once again, the perceptions and opinions of those concerned must be taken into account.

Investing in mental health also means working on prevention. Despite many unknowns, we are beginning to understand a little more about the deleterious effects on mental wellbeing of factors such as poverty and inequality, bereavement, war, family dysfunction and the violence it generates, and arduous or meaningless work. For populations living in poverty or in conflict situations, the mental health risks are significant, but remain relatively underestimated. Yet the cost is high, not only for individuals and families, but also for communities, for a country's human capital and for the economy as a whole. This prevention work cannot be left to doctors and psychologists alone: it is a shared responsibility between the public sector, in particular the education and early childhood sector, associations and the business world; in short, society as a whole.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Good mental health is not only the absence of problems, but also the ability to lead a full and creative life and to have the flexibility and resilience to meet life's challenges. In our societies and around the world, these assets are still too unequally shared today. I hope that your exchanges during this conference will open up new avenues and I wish you very fruitful debates.