The COVID-19 pandemic has had a massive impact on people’s mental health worldwide, with evidence that the prevalence of major depressive and anxiety disorders increased by a quarter in 2020 alongside high rates of reported distress 4. In a global survey of 130 countries conducted by the World Health Organization (WHO), 93% of the countries reported substantial disruption in their services for mental, neurological, and substance use disorders during the pandemic5. This is of particular concern given that mental health services in many countries were already fragile and poorly funded6. Although 89% of countries that responded to the previous WHO survey reported that MHPSS was part of their national COVID-19 response plans, only 17% had ensured that full additional funding is available for MHPSS activities5. This suggests a substantial gap exists between the planning for and implementation of MHPSS activities. Additionally, the extent to which those plans are implemented was not clear.
International normative guidance on MHPSS in the COVID-19 pandemic was developed quickly in the early months of the pandemic, in 2020. For instance, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) Reference Group on MHPSS in Emergency Settings issued an interim briefing note to outline the MHPSS aspects of the COVID-19 outbreak3. This guidance outlined fourteen key activities that were recommended to be implemented as a part of the national COVID-19 response.
The research component of this project aims to (1) assess the extent to which the IASC recommended MHPSS activities were included in the national response to the COVID-19 pandemic in African countries and (2) explore barriers and enablers to MHPSS integration into the COVID-19 response.
Identifying challenges and opportunities for MHPSS integration into the COVID-19 response will provide evidence to inform preparedness and response to future infectious disease outbreaks and other public health emergencies in the continent.
An explanatory sequential mixed-methods study, using an online survey followed by in-depth interviews, was conducted with data collection taking place between October and December 2020. In this approach, initial quantitative results are followed up by more in-depth qualitative research to better understand quantitative results.
In order to obtain data on MHPSS response in African countries, we purposively selected Mental Health Focal Points in national Ministries of Health (MoH), WHO Regional and Country Offices, and staff of National Public Health Institutions to respond to the survey and to be interviewed. Civil society representatives were also included in the interviews to obtain information from different perspectives. The invitation to participate was sent via Africa Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (Africa CDC), West African Health Organisation (WAHO) and WHO Regional Office for Africa (AFRO), and WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean (EMRO).
Findings from this research will help inform the capacity-building and system-strengthening components of the project.
Through this project, a consortium of Africa’s leading public health institutions was established in order to guide research and build a foundation for future work to increase visibility and investment into public mental health within key institutions in Africa, as well as within the international development sector.