Enhancing Mental Health in Africa through Information and Communication Technology

The Foresight Africa 2023 report examines the top priorities for the region in the coming year. One important but overlooked aspect of health and economic development is mental health. This issue is especially prevalent in Africa, where there are high disease burdens and significant underfunding of the health sector. Mental health disorders have economic implications, which can be particularly devastating in low-income countries where people frequently experience unexpected income and health shocks. According to the 2014 WHO Mental Health Atlas survey, nearly 50% of African countries reported that they had no or had not implemented their own mental health policy.

Additionally, government spending in sub-Saharan Africa accounts for only 40% of total healthcare expenditure, which is significantly lower than the global average of 60%. African governments spend only 2% of GDP on health, compared to a global average of 3.5%. Out-of-pocket healthcare spending in Africa also accounts for a higher proportion of healthcare expenditure compared to the rest of the world.

Africa is home to the youngest population worldwide, with 60% of its population under 25. Young people are at a higher risk of mental health disorders such as suicide and self-harm. However, the continent has more people with access to mobile technology than at any other point in history. In Ghana, for example, the percentage of people who own a mobile phone increased from 8% in 2002 to 83% in 2015.

Given the high prevalence of mobile phone ownership in Africa, researchers have analyzed whether and how policies leveraging mobile technology can improve mental health outcomes. One study examined a low-cost telecommunications intervention in Ghana, which provided mobile phone calling credits to low-income adults during the COVID-19 pandemic. The program reduced distress by almost 10%, significantly reduced the likelihood of severe distress, and lowered the need for borrowing SOS airtime and digital loans.

The results of this study highlight the cost-effectiveness of providing communication credits to low-income adults to promote mental health. Policymakers in Africa can leverage access to ICT and issue communication credits to foster social connections and improve mental health outcomes, particularly in low-income settings where mental health and healthcare funding are considerably lower. Communal interventions are also important when delivered on multiple occasions, and can improve mental health outcomes in Africa.

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