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Zambian activists lament surge in Alcohol and Substance Abuse

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Mental health activists in Zambia, have lamented the extent to which young people’s mental health is affected by alcohol and substance abuse.

According to research, mental health disorders are a leading cause of health disability in 10-to-24-year-olds in Zambia and a recent report released in Lusaka, reveals that the country has experienced increased numbers of children committing suicide, because of the same.

These activists have now launched a Campaign on Mental Health for Children to fight the menace.

According to the activists, Alcohol and other substance abuse have become common in Zambia, with young people, including teenagers openly drinking in communities.

Sometimes they drink while wearing school uniforms, after knocking off school or skipping class.

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In most of such situations, their mental state is such that they fail to exercise good judgement and consequently, engage in violent behaviour.

A case in point was a fight that ensued some months ago, where students from two neighbouring schools in an affluent suburb, called Kabulonga, in the capital, Lusaka, believed to have been under the influence of alcohol and drugs, got engaged in a violent clash, which resulted into the death of one of the students.

The extent to which substance abuse affects these young people is also such that a lot of them end up being committed to mental institutions.

Mental Health Specialist, Gabriel Lungu, who works under the Ministry of Health said most mental issues being treated in the men’s wards at Lusaka’s Chainama hospital, are related to substance abuse.

People with mental health conditions still living in chains

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What interventions are needed to address the issue

Lungu, believes there is need for the creation of easier and wider access to mental health care.

“[There is need] to strengthen integration of mental health in the primary health care, so that people can easily access these mental services at the closest door next to them and ensure that everybody is brought aboard,” said Lungu.

Enhanced sensitization about mental health, is equally important and Lungu, who has been speaking widely about the issue, on various media platforms, including radio, television and social media, wants all who are concerned with mental health, to put in extra effort.

“We are calling upon all stake holders, non-governmental organisations to really up their game in terms of advocating and raising awareness, among the general public, so that we have [an] informed public.

Come through and support the development of materials [such a posters], so that we have more people who can read about mental issues. So, it would be delightful to have partners supporting Ministry of Health in ensuring that this mental health agenda is brought in the spotlight,” he adds.

Home-grown initiatives that are in place

In recent years, a number of initiatives have been established in the country, that aim at addressing mental issues, with more in the pipeline.

They include help lines, school and community outreach programmes, which are being spearheaded by such organisations as the MentalLiberty Foundation.

The objective of these outreach programmes is to encourage conversations with young people in schools and communities about the problems they face and related mental issues, so that the foundation could find ways of helping them.

“[We aim] at spreading mental health awareness and giving aid to those who need help in their mental health issues. We believe that mental health is a priority and the children are also a priority, therefore the mental health of children is the first priority.

We want to spread mental health awareness and also, to let the community realise that the children are the future and without healthy children, we can not have healthy leaders in future,” the foundation’s representative, Namatama Lubinda, observes.

Also involved in similar activities, is a youth-led organisation, called, Psychealth Zambia.  The organisation provides therapy and consultation for current problems in a manner that fosters future wellness and adaptation’. They also want to increase access to mental health services for marginalised communities.

Psychealth’s mental awareness activities are currently only in Lusaka, but there are plans to take them all over the country, at some point, says, Kayumba Chiwele, one of the organisation’s founders.

“We are working with the [Ministry of Health] and other groups to try and fill the gap in mental health care. I want us to be everywhere in Zambia. I want us to have outlets in each of our ten provinces to scale up, reach the rural areas and basically provide mental health services for everyone in Zambia,” says Chiwele.

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Capacity to address mental health issues

Despite such programmes that are available to intervene in the situation, there are still concerns about the country’s capacity to address mental health.

Chiwele notes via social media, that available mental health services are not enough.

“Mental health in Zambia is highly stigmatized. It’s something that is not really spoken about in our culture. Additionally, mental health services in our country are highly inadequate. We have very few qualified personnel in the field and only one mental health institution,” She observes.

The MentalLiberty Foundation equally feels mental health services in the country leave a lot to be desired.

It is apparent that Zambia has many resources and opportunities at her disposal, which unfortunately hardly encompass the mental health sector, they say.

The foundation adds, among other issues, that these inequalities range from high costs of health care services, as well as poor diagnostic facilities for patients living with mental disorders, poor infrastructural provisional services such as psychiatric hospitals, clinics or centres and the inevitable non-inclusion of people with mental illnesses in activities as a result of the stigma society portrays towards them.

The foundation concludes that, lack of funding in the mental health sector, to facilitate the wellbeing of mental patients, has also been a major factor, that serves to worsen the attitude towards, the importance of mental health in the Zambian society.

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