The 3rd Annual Conference on Public Health in Africa: youth at the centre of solutions

Written by Aviwe Funani , Policy & Advocacy Advisor at United for Global Mental Health.

The third annual Conference on Public Health In Africa (CPHIA) took place between 27 and 30 November in Lusaka, Zambia. The African Union and the Africa Centre for Disease Control hosted the conference under the theme ‘Breaking Barriers: Repositioning Africa in the Global Health Architecture.’ The conference brought together public health experts, decision makers, global institutions, national governments, health practitioners, and civil society to reflect on lessons learned in health and science across the continent.

Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director General, opened the conference by calling for institutional change in public health, increased investment in youth services, and youth engagement in global institutions. 

Building on the 2022 CPHIA in Rwanda, which ended on a high note with Universal Health Coverage recognised as a key for increased access to mental health services, increased mental health prioritisation and increased funding. Mental health was once again a focus area across different sessions, with youth mental health garnering the most attention. 

Mental Health in Africa

Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among 15 to 29 year olds, Our Senior Officer joined Lifeline International in their session, Reversing Africa’s Suicide Toll: A Focus on Youth to talk about why United for Global Mental Health is advocating for governments to place greater focus on the mental health of young people.

Steven Ariel, a young suicide survivor and author of ‘Why People Commit Suicide,’ shared his experience, and spoke about the importance of supporting suicide survivors and decriminalising suicide so that people can reach out for help when they need it. South Sudan’s Minister of Health, Honourable Yolanda Awel Deng, echoed the importance of recognising social determinants of youth mental health and the role of intergenerational conversations in addressing the stigma around suicide and youth mental health. 

“Mental health is one of the most neglected health concerns in Africa despite the burden of mental health conditions being on the rise. Major neglected health concerns require a multi-sectoral approach for prevention and control.” – Dr. Mary Nyamongo 

Aviwe Funani with the Minister of Health, South Sudan, Yolanda Wel Deng.

In response to African mental health challenges UNICEF and the WHO committed to a ten year Joint Programme on Mental Health and Psychosocial Well-being and Development of Children and Adolescents beginning in 2020. The programme is aimed at strengthening mental health and psychosocial support systems for children, adolescents, and their caregivers by working with local governments. Bringing mental health into national preparedness efforts and de-stigmatising mental health are priorities of this commitment.

The CPHIA  inspired delegates to break barriers and develop new strategies to reach the AU’s Africa 2063 – The Africa We Want agenda set by the AU. The Africa We Want is a set of aspirations set to guide African governments and policy makers to work towards an integrated, prosperous and peaceful Africa, driven by its own citizens and representing a dynamic force in the international arena.  Mental health recognised as a key aspect of reaching the 2063 Agenda was a clear sign of a collective voice to ensure Africa’s development in mental health is people-driven and relies on the potential of Africans, especially its women and young people  

Youth mental health in Africa and the Being Initiative

We know that half of mental health conditions start before the age of 14, so it was a welcome relief to hear that mental health of young people was a consistent theme throughout the event, with conversations highlighting the importance of young people playing a role in policy processes and public health. The pre-conference on youth, hosted a week prior by the African Union and Africa CDC, ended with a resounding call to action from young people, calling for greater investment in youth-led mental health solutions; a sentiment that we share with the Being initiative, a project led by Fondation Botnar, UnitedGMH, and Grand Challenges Canada., which recognises the importance of youth engagement and leadership in youth mental health. The Being initiative’s goal to make an increased impact on the continent through financing, research, and youth led projects in Ghana, Senegal, Sierra Leone, Morocco, Egypt and Tanzania. The CPHIA echoed the objectives of the goals of the Being collaborative, rights-based, participatory, and inclusive way and centre their voices.

The Being initiative works across thirteen low and middle-income countries. Saad Uakkas, a young person from Morocco and youth advisor to Being national partners in Morocco, was at the forefront during the youth pre-conference discussions and came with a clear message to prioritise youth mental health. For Africa to reach its true potential, young people’s mental health must take centre stage, and through the Being initiative, we are glad to be part of helping achieve this potential. 

Aviwe Funani from UnitedGMH with Saad Uakkas, a young person from Morocco and youth advisor to Being national partners in Morocco.

Aviwe Funani from UnitedGMH with Saad Uakkas, a young person from Morocco and youth advisor to Being national partners in Morocco.

“We deserve parity for mental health across all sectors of society. Equity is essential for us reaching the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, and equity for mental health is key for achieving the SDGs.” –  Aviwe Funani_ Senior Officer for Children and Youth at United for Global Mental Health