Medical conditions that affect the brain and the nerves in the human body — called neurological disorders — contribute greatly to the global burden of diseases, but even more so in low- and middle-income countries.
As the world celebrates Brain Awareness Week on 14-20 March, Zul Merali, a neuroscientist and founding director of the Brain and Mind Institute at Aga Khan University in Kenya, speaks to SciDev.Net on why brain science should be embraced to tackle mental health issues in Sub-Saharan Africa.
What is Brain Awareness Week about?
The Brain Awareness Week is a global campaign to foster public understanding, enthusiasm and support for brain science or neuroscience.
The brain is sort of an ignored organ because it is encased in the skull, and you can't see it or feel it. In my estimation, it is the most important organ in the body. This is the time to discuss how a normal or abnormal functioning of the brain impacts individuals, communities and countries.
Why is neuroscience an important subject in the African medical context?
Neuroscience is a science that examines the structure and function of the human brain and nervous system.
Neuroscientists use different types of techniques and technologies to get a view of what is happening inside the brain. We are able to study how the brain cells use different chemicals to talk to each other. Neuroscience is very complicated as there are numerous nerve cells in the brain, and each has thousands of connections. The brain is a very complex organ and we are learning more about it.
From a health perspective, if anything goes awry in the brain, it will impact the physical body and therefore it is important to understand the science of the brain.
When the brain is not functioning properly, you might develop neurological or mental health conditions which hugely impact one's productivity and life all round.
What are mental disorders and how do they manifest themselves?
Mental illness arises when brain circuits fail to function properly.
Mental illnesses are triggered by stresses in life. Our communities face more severe chronic stresses than might be seen in most developed countries. These impacts the functioning of our brain, and we experience chronic stresses which put us more at risk.
Women also face more stresses in life such as emotional pressures. Such stresses cause wear and tear on the functioning of the brain, making women more vulnerable to developing mental illness.
The most common forms of mental illnesses include depression, anxiety disorders, obsessive compulsive disorders, bipolar disorders, post-traumatic stress disorders and schizophrenia.
Global estimates indicate that one out of four individuals will be directly impacted by mental illness sometime in their lives.
This spreads down to friends and families of people directly impacted and therefore it becomes a bigger cycle of populations directly and indirectly impacted.
How serious are mental disorders in Sub-Saharan Africa?
Most younger populations in their youth years from the age of 20 and 21 are impacted, and this coincides with the age where mental illnesses normally manifest.
The impacts are quite huge whether the individuals are going to properly engage in the educational system and get the training they need or be engaged in the workforce.
Mental illnesses do not only impact on the individual's wellbeing but also a country's economy as they are all intertwined.
Do we have the capacity to deal with brain disorders in Sub-Saharan Africa?
No. We have a huge gap in terms of capacity to adequately deal with everybody in our job. I think that there is a huge shortage of psychiatrists and psychologists.
There is often a brain drain where educated individuals such as psychiatrists leave for North America or Europe to practice.
We need to build capacity and think differently on how to approach mental health. We do not have resources and capacity like countries in Europe.
There is a need to figure out models that suit our situation.
There is also the need to train and empower other members of the community who can step up and provide some level of care with the support of highly trained individuals to enhance capacity.
At the Brain and Mind Institute, we are using mobile technology platforms to enable people who might not be specialists to solve mental health problems in their communities.
What is the way forward for Sub-Saharan Africa in dealing with brain disorders?
Stigma, taboos and myths about mental illnesses are common in many communities in Sub-Sharan Africa. There is a need to educate the public on the need for seeking medical attention other than relying on community interventions tied to beliefs and myths associated with mental illnesses.
Treatment of mental illnesses should be integrated into primary healthcare. Countries in Sub-Saharan Africa also need to invest much in research and development to find better solutions for the future.