Strengthening mental health care in Malawi

CommunicationsBlog, Malawi, Nursing

From Seattle to Senegal, the importance of skilled mental health care is universal. But in some parts of the world – such as Malawi, where Seed partners to send Global Health Services Partnership (GHSP) Volunteers – availability of skilled mental health professionals is scarce.

Amelia Rutter was working in a community and mental health integrated care clinic in Washington state when she found out about GHSP. Despite the thousands of miles that separated her from her eventual placement in Malawi, as a GHSP Nurse Educator, she was drawn to the opportunity to help teach the next generation of mental health educators in a resource-limited health system. And what she found was that the mental health issues facing even incredibly different communities are largely the same.

“What is so interesting is yes, there are culturally different ways of addressing mental health here [than in the U.S.], but when you get down to what the issues are, they are the same all over,” said Amelia, “We are all human and deal with the same issues no matter what our religious, cultural or economic background is.”

Realizing the disorders and conditions she saw were similar, Amelia has been able to put her experience in mental healthcare in Washington into action as she instructs mental health nurses in Malawi.

Currently, Amelia teaches courses as part of a Bachelors of Science in Mental Health and Psychiatric Nursing Program at St. John of God College of Health Sciences. The sixteen nurses in the program already have a diploma and have worked in local hospitals, and now have returned to school to earn a degree specific to mental health nursing. Her students learn both in the classroom and eventually through weekly community outreach where they will travel to local villages to see patients directly.

In sub-Saharan Africa, mental health disorders account for nearly 19 percent of the total burden of disease and significant population growth and ageing will result in an estimated 130 percent increase in the burden of mental and substance use disorders in the region by 2050. Yet mental health services are limited and poorly resourced. Rutter hopes that by empowering and encouraging her students to be leaders, they can be both more effective clinicians and future educators, and also local advocates for mental health services

“Often there is such a need for general medical care that mental health care gets pushed to the side. But one of the things we are teaching in our Community Mental Health class is the importance of integrating mental health care into primary healthcare system.”

“The students definitely see the need,” says Rutter. “And the importance of nursing to mental health is huge. They are the first line providers in the communities… They are in more of a position to provide education.”

While Amelia’s students do not yet have advanced degrees, she hopes that her training will empower them to view themselves as advanced practice nurses, like other mental health nurses in the U.S.

“What I hope,” said Amelia, “is that they become leaders who are able to train others to recognize and diagnose mental health issues and when to refer to a higher level of care.”

We are proud of Amelia and her passionate work in Malawi to help raise the standard of care in mental health nursing. To learn more about our work in Malawi, or to find out how you can become a volunteer like Amelia, explore more of our website or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.