Psychological Experts say the global pandemic is spurring a youth mental crisis upending the lives of young people. Covid-19 has increased global depression driving mental health to the edge as families across the world faced the consequences of extended lockdowns and loss of family members.

Mental health was already a problem before the pandemic with nearly 1 in 5 adolescents worldwide already living with the condition. Facing extreme depression, “suicide was the third leading cause of death for teens between the ages of 15 and 19” in the pre pandemic days and this could skyrocket but how worse can it get?

Alkamba Times Big Interview speaks with Clinical Specialist, Mental Health Manager, and social advocate Olimatou Chongan who brings 10 years of experience to the sector with two Master of Science degrees in Mental Health Studies and Psychology.

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Mental health awareness has become increasingly important amid the global pandemic which pushed people to new levels of resilience. Why is mental health central to our wellbeing? 

Good Morning Alkamba Times. Thank you for having me today, I’m honored. As humans, we cannot talk about wellbeing without the inclusion of mental wellness. It is essential we recognise there can be no overall good health without mental wellbeing. The way we think affects our emotions, behaviour and consequently how we cope in life. This means our physical health is very much linked to our mental health. Mental wellbeing is therefore important at every stage of life, from childhood and adolescent through adulthood to aging.

Countries like the Gambia are still struggling to enhance awareness of mental health and services to support effective care, what can we learn from the NHS model? 

The National Health Service model of the U.K explores all sectors of health in a holistic manner. Services in such a world class health system are intertwined in such a way if a patient attends a basic facility like A&E, assessments although individualised will be conducted considering all areas, not just the physical. Furthermore, there exist enough secondary services in such a health service model for mental health, pain, drug & alcohol etc. These are areas we currently face challenges with in our dear The Gambia and need to emulate such models.

Your experience as a Mental health expert and advocate has been inspiring in amplifying the need for action especially in the Gambia, what’s the current outlook of the mental sector, are we moving in the right direction? 

As a mental health expert, I was in The Gambia very recently and was honoured to be hired by the UN via the IOM branch in-collaboration with Ministries of Health and Foreign Affairs. This was to facilitate a mentorship via a knowledge and skills transfer program. As someone who believes in field work, I was hardly based at offices, I worked at Tanka Tanka mostly. This enabled me to give lectures to the staff and get first-hand experience of what is happening on the ground. I must report I am so very impressed with the mental health staff we have working at the facility giving their best with little resources.

As to whether we are moving in the right direction, one thing The Gambia has is professionals who can make things work. The staff working in our mental health sector from management level to the practical side are brilliant, I was surprise when I met with most of them and the ideas they have and how they want to develop the mental health sector. Our problem therefore is lack of resources but not lack of direction.

How crucial is it to support expertise in mental health? Do you agree that the sector needs more trained professionals in the Gambia? 

There can never be enough hands to get the job done especially in the mental health sector. When you assess the skill mix, we have working in our mental health service in The Gambia, there is definitely a hugh gap which needs filling. The MDT currently working in the country’s only psychiatric unit, Tanka Tanka does not include a psychologist to begin with. There are very few psychiatrists (including the Cuban doctors) and I also observed there are no occupational therapists in the facility. Although the nurses are doing well, they cannot take on all the roles they are not trained to facilitate so yes, we need more trained professionals in The Gambian mental health sector.

What is the axis linking mental and physical health?

It has been long established that healthy bodies and healthy minds are inextricably linked and neither of the two can exist without the other. Poor mental health is a major risk factor for chronic psychical health conditions. People with serious mental health conditions are at a high risk of experiencing chronic physical health conditions and studies have shown the reverse is true for people who suffer with chronic health diseases. In mental health services in the NHS, service users are put on exercise by prescription and smoking cessation is a big area in our campaign. We also often communicate in clear pathways with our colleagues working in the physical health field to bridge the gap and solve the problem of diagnostic overshadowing. Since there is no health without mental health, working together has been beneficial to our service users.

Despite the dearth of facilities and care services, advocacy has played a key role in raising awareness towards action and policy commitments to mental health. Tell us more about your organization and advocacy work? 

My organization, Better Thoughts Africa, was set up in 2014 after encouragement from some colleagues I worked with in the NHS and several Gambians interested in MH. Since then, we have completed projects especially support to Tanka Tanka, the main psychiatric unit in The Gambia. In-addition to the projects we do, we also write blogs on mental health and are a resource centre for all things pertaining to mental wellness.

Mental health awareness is still challenged by traditional perceptions that largely influences social responses to the issue.

Is it time to take mental health education to schools?

Although we have our traditional beliefs which are part of our society, one way to combat any problem is to be knowledge about it. If students are introduced mental health studies at an early age, they be able to identify issues affecting them and their peers and the teachers will be better equipped to support them. People who are influencers in our society can also help by continuing to raise awareness.

Profile
Clinical Specialist Ms Chongan who recently completed the healthcare management course for the UK National Health Service (NHS) is a registered member of the British Psychology Society. A committed professional who believes in giving back to her community, Olimatou is the founder of the mental health charity ‘Better Thoughts Africa’ which helps developing countries especially The Gambia to advance mental health. Her research interests include the overlap between mental and physical health, self-harm & suicide prevention, MH risk assessment, management, and policy development.

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Mr. Sainey M.K. Marenah is a Prominent Gambian journalist, founding editor The Alkamba Times and formerly head of communications at the Constitutional Review Commission (CRC) and Communications and PR Consultant for The Gambia Pilot Program, under Gamworks. Mr. Marenah served as the Social media Strategist and Editor at Gambia Radio and Television Services. He is also the Banjul Correspondent for Voice of America Radio. Sainey is a human rights and developmental journalist who has carved a strong niche particularly in new media environments in the Gambian media industry. Mr. Marenah began his career as a junior reporter with the Point Newspaper in the Gambia in 2008 and rose through the ranks to become Chief correspondent before moving to The Standard Newspaper also in Banjul as Editorial Assistant and head of News. He is a household name in the Gambia’s media industry having covered some of the most important stories in the former and current government. These include the high profile treason cases including the Trial of Former military chiefs in Banjul in 2009 to 2012. Following his arrest and imprisonment by the former regime of President, Yahya Jammeh in 2014, Marenah moved to Dakar Senegal where he continues to practice Journalism freelancing for various local and international Media organization’s including the BBC, Al-Jazeera, VOA, and ZDF TV in Germany among others. He is the co-Founder of the Banjul Based Media Center for Research and Development; an institution specialized in research and development undertakings. As a journalist and Communication Expert, focused on supporting the Gambia's transitional process, Mr Marenah continues to play a pivotal role in shaping a viable media and communications platform that engages necessary tools and action to increase civic participation and awareness of the needs of transitional governance to strengthen the current move towards democratization. Mr. Marenah has traveled extensively as a professional journalist in both Europe, Africa and United States and attended several local and international media trainings.

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