Activists have welcomed the launch of the Zimbabwe's first national mental health policy, but warned that delays in implementation could make it irrelevant.
Elizabeth Matare, director of the Zimbabwe National Association for Mental Health (ZIMNAMH), told IRIN that her organisation welcomed the new policy, as well as the increased budgetary allocations for the mental health sector.
"The inclusion of mental health issues in the national HIV/AIDS programme is highly commendable - we have always complained that mental health patients have been sidelined. But the policy is only a statement of intention on the part of the ministry of health. We would like to see the policy put into action - Zimbabwe has a long history of coming up with acts and working documents that are never implemented," she remarked.
Under the new policy guidelines, mental health issues form part of the national HIV/AIDS mitigation and information strategy, thereby giving the mentally ill greater access to information, treatment and counselling. Matare said the policy should be followed by action plans aimed at improving the welfare of the mentally ill.
"We would like to see action that improves the lot of those affected [by mental illness]; that deals with such components as treatment, rehabilitation and forensic psychiatry for the mentally ill who are held in prisons, among other things. We are happy to note that the policy recognises the link between HIV/AIDS and mental health," she said.
"It is a known fact that people suffer from varying stages of depression once they get to know their positive status - some fail to cope with it and suffer from serious forms of mental illness. So, recognising this link puts us in a position to deal with the problems once they arise," Matare added.
However, she said ZIMNAMH was still concerned that the new policy lacked a specific clause dealing with women and mental health. She called for a specific agenda, as women were affected by mental health problems in a number of ways.
"We have to recognise that women are usually the caregivers for people suffering from such serious illnesses as HIV/AIDS. This exposes them to high stress factors, which in turn affects them mentally. They end up suffering from many conditions, like continuous headaches, sleeping disorders, depression and other psychosomatic disorders," Matare explained. This sets them apart as a sector begging for special attention, and we would be pleased if that could be incorporated into the mental health policy."
A total of Zim $5 billion (US $877,346), up from Zim $120 million (about $22,000) in 2004, has been set aside for programmes and improvements in the country's three psychiatric hospitals during 2005. ZIMNAMH estimates that about 300,000 Zimbabweans suffer from various types of mental illness.