Policies to promote mental health for all

Anne Nattembo

What you need to know:

  • Just as poor mental health not only affects the individual, the costs associated with managing it affect families, communities, organisations, and governments.

Statistics show that approximately 14 million people experience mental illness in Uganda. While mental health is increasingly getting the attention it deserves, there is a lot that can be done to progress this further. 

Uganda needs to adapt new collaborative models of mental health promotion and care along with new and innovative ways of working across all sections of society. This can be achieved through establishing mental health promotion as a priority in all areas of public policy.

With a favourable policy environment, policy decision makers as well as mental health stakeholders can harness opportunities to protect communities from risky factors and provide early diagnosis and treatment.

Just as poor mental health not only affects the individual, the costs associated with managing it affect families, communities, organisations, and governments.

Certainly, there are some improvements in services provided to people who experience poor mental health, however, many of the factors that could support communities to maintain good mental health are not within the healthcare sector. 

Moreover, mental health is determined by multiple and integrated social, environmental, psychological, and biological factors just as health in general is. 

Sustainable mental health promotion requires collective effort and building alliances across all sectors.

A key step in strengthening an integrated and multisectoral approach to mental health promotion is for all sectors such as businesses, sports, education, energy, defence and security, housing, transport, culture and social development, arts, and reaction to assess how each promotes or demotes mental health.

Many sectors outside healthcare are not aware of the effect they have on expanding mental health promotion or the opportunities they have to reduce damage to mental wellbeing.

Small investments in existing policies will not end the crisis in mental health and will continue to offer unintegrated services that do not adequately deliver quality prevention and care.

This does not necessarily call for a complete overhaul of existing policies but rather to refine the policy and practice contexts to ensure cultural, social, and economic determinants of mental health are addressed while settings such as workplaces and schools are modified to facilitate positive mental health outcomes. 

These policies should be developed from a people-centred approach and should prioritise recovery-focused mental health services to ensure that people who experience mental illness participate in and lead their recoveries.

The private sector needs to be prioritised in this collaborative policy development and implementation to ensure that the sector complies with local, national, and international regulations and agreements that protect and promote mental health.

Policy collaboration is also required within the health sector especially with interventions targeting people with disabilities, youth and people who depend on alcohol. 

The other key issue within the health sector is the tension between investing in treatment and early intervention approaches as well as prevention and promotion approaches. The investment case in these approaches needs to be backed by evidence to achieve long-term impact.

Prioritising mental health promotion from a public policy lens will have a significant impact in reducing systemic barriers and risks, in a range of settings, sectors and population groups where the most urgent action needs to be taken. However, no matter how good policies are, their real worth is in the ability to effect change. 

Importantly, collaboration needs to extend well beyond the policy development phase to implementation to ensure that the integrated approach to mental health promotion is maintained.

Dr Anne Nattembo is a mental health communications researcher