As the world marks Mental Health Day today, it's bound to be a very low-key event in Tanzania for obvious reasons. At the national level, mental health is still not given the attention it deserves, despite facts on ground suggesting that an increasing number of Tanzanians are exposed to or suffer from one or more of the various forms of mental illness. Cultural and socioeconomic factors combine to undermine the importance of mental health, even at the policy level.
But as a nation we have an opportunity to reflect and assess ourselves today. On the 10th of October every year, the world commemorates Mental Health Day with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues and mobilising efforts in support of better mental health.
Organised by the World Health Organisation, the theme for this year's commemorations is 'Mental health in the workplace'. This is considering the fact that during our adult lives, a large proportion of our time is spent at work. Our experience in the workplace is one of the factors determining our overall wellbeing. Productivity is high in workplaces where mental health is promoted. A negative working environment, on the other hand, may lead to physical and mental health problems, harmful use of substances or alcohol, absenteeism and lost productivity.
Now, the question is: how far has Tanzania gone in drafting and implementing strategies for the promotion and prevention of mental health? A mental health policy exists, and is one of the various resources in place to address the issue. But concerns remain over the scope of mental health care in the country. In fact, warnings have been issued before that poor mental health is a ticking time bomb in Tanzania. Cases of suicide and crimes of passion are just the tip of an iceberg.
One of the major problems in our approach is the tendency to confine intervention measures to extreme cases of mental disorders. By this we mean that in many cases mental health only becomes an issue when, for the person affected, admission to a psychiatric unit is no longer an option.
Yet, what could make a difference is focusing on preventative measures, such as investing in counselling services at hospitals and clinics. According to BasicNeeds, an international non-governmental organisation working to improve the lives of people with mental illness, of the estimated 2.5 million people in Tanzania that suffer from mental illness, only 20 per cent have access to mental health services.
Some of the major disasters that have occurred in recent years have left many psychological scars in the victims. From the 1996 Bukoba ferry accident, the Dodoma train collision of 2002 and the Mbagala bomb blasts to the most recent earthquakes and Lucky Vincent bus crash, there are thousands of people in need of professional counselling to help them deal with trauma.
More so, there are signs of depression and stress in an increasing number of people - especially in urban areas where life has turned out to be survival of the fittest. Many of those affected are young Tanzanians. What this means is that mental health care is no longer a luxury