Sierra Leone struggling with mental health crisis and lack of professional help

Many people in Sierra Leone, a country recovering from a devastating civil war and Ebola outbreak, continue to struggle with mental health issues and trauma, Amnesty International said in a press release on Tuesday, noting, however, that there is a lack of access to mental health services and help in the West African nation.

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“In Sierra Leone, people have endured horrific traumas in recent decades and the country is now also dealing with the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Rawya Rageh, Amnesty International’s Senior Crisis Advisor.

The people of Sierra Leone have been through a great deal in recent years and it has taken a toll. Yet, Amnesty international asserts that mental health is not a luxury but rather a fundamental human right that must be prioritized.

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“The Sierra Leone government must now translate its policy commitments into tangible action by investing in improving mental health services. Working alongside national actors, donor governments and agencies should provide the assistance desperately needed to prioritize these much-needed systems of care,” said Amnesty International.

The West African nation of Sierra Leone was ravaged by a devastating civil war that lasted over a decade from 1991 to 2002. The United Nations reports that the bloody war resulted in some 70,000 casualties and 2.6 million displaced people. While the physical impact of the war was extensive, the psychological impact has been burdensome, traumatic, and long-lasting for many of its survivors.

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Countless people in Sierra Leone were exposed to immense trauma such as surviving horrific injuries, watching their homes get destroyed, and even witnessing the ruthless killings of their loved ones. Mental health professionals widely hold that traumatic events in a person’s life are often likely to lead to the development of chronic mental health conditions on top of distress and grief.

In addition to the long-lasting effects of the conflict and destruction caused by its civil war, Sierra Leone has also had serious public health crises such as the Ebola epidemic which shook the nation from 2014 to early 2016. According to the World Health Organization, Sierra Leone saw 14,124 cases during this time, of which 3,956 resulted in death.

Ebola survivors have experienced a heavy psychological toll in the immediate aftermath and the years following the epidemic. In addition to poor government handling of the crisis, survivors report being bastardized and stigmatized by society. Most survivors suffer from health complications to this day.

Everybody in Sierra Leone was greatly impacted by the Ebola outbreak to some extent, with many people losing family or friends to the disease. For many, this trauma has created a psychological and mental burden that is still an issue today.

While mental health in Sierra Leone is clearly a very pressing issue, not nearly enough is being done to combat these pervasive problems. In fact, there is a major stigma surrounding mental health in Sierra Leone, says Amnesty International.

There is a lack of public awareness about the mental health crisis and many people are subject to abuse rather than help and assistance. Despite the widespread need for professional assistance, mental health care in Sierra Leone is incredibly scarce.

“With a population of seven million people, Sierra Leone has only around 20 mental health nurses and three psychiatrists,” says Amnesty International.

The majority of trauma survivors in Sierra Leone are unaware of any existing psychological counseling services, even if they are offered. As Sierra Leone finds itself recovering from the coronavirus pandemic in addition to decades of other crises, the mental health of its people must be made a priority.

Despite its widespread reach and the countless number of people it affects, the mental health crisis in Sierra Leone is not getting nearly enough attention. The mental condition of the country cannot simply be put on the backburner or set aside to focus on other problems.

If there is to be serious change on Sierra Leone’s mental health front, meaningful action must be taken promptly. The mental health challenges facing the people of Sierra Leone need to be widely destigmatized and legitimately prioritized. The implementation of widespread access to mental health professionals and services is a fundamental step in doing so.

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