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Mental health experts, neurologists convene in Nairobi to advocate investment in brain health

Brain and Mind Institute (BMI) Founding Director Prof Zul Merali, Aga Khan University President Dr Sulaiman Shabuddin, BMI COO & Associate Director East Africa Dr Samim Hasham and Deputy Director Prof Lukoye Atwoli share a light moment during the "Healing The Brain" Conference in Nairobi. The ongoing conference held from November 15 -17, 2023 has brought together leading experts in the field to raise awareness of the current state of brain health in low- and middle-income countries and the challenges faced in providing adequate care.

Mental health experts and neuroscientists have convened in Nairobi to explore innovative solutions and strategies to promote brain health in low- and middle-income countries. The conference held under the theme ‘Healing the Brain: Bridging the Gap in LMICs’ began today and will continue till Friday, November 17, 2023.

The conference is expected to address the impact that mental health and neuroscience have on individuals, communities, and societies. It will also address the obstacles that countries in the global south face in addressing brain health issues including access to care, insufficient research, development and funding, cultural barriers towards help-seeking behaviour and a general lack of awareness by the population.

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The Ministry of Health’s Mental Health Investment Case 2021 put the burden of mental health conditions at 62.2 billion Kenyan Shillings as a cumulative cost for medical bills for mental health conditions, lost productivity through absenteeism, presenteeism and premature deaths. Globally, the World Health Organization estimates that depression and anxiety costs the world economy 1 trillion US Dollars per year in lost productivity.

Additionally, the World Economic Forum forecasts that the cost of mental health conditions is projected to rise to 6 trillion US Dollars globally by 2030. It is in this regard that neuroscientists, researchers, and mental health experts are calling for intervention and investment in brain health.

“Globally, mental health receives just 2 percent of all health funding, and the figure falls to 1 percent in lower-income countries. In lower-income countries, only a third of national health insurance plans cover mental health conditions such as depression, and there are just 2 mental health workers for every 100,000 people. Here in Africa, mental health research constitutes just 2 percent of all health research. Yet the continent’s suicide rate is the highest of any World Health Organization region, with the rate for men 40 percent higher than the global rate,” said Aga khan University President Dr. Sulaiman Shahabuddin in his speech during the opening session of the conference.

While reflecting on the inspiration behind the conference, the Founding Director of the Brain & Mind Institute, Prof Zul Merali, observed that, “Indeed, the burden of mental illness is the largest of all diseases put together, with great implications for the socio-economic development of our countries. Each of us has a role to play to address this hidden pandemic. We hope that through our expertise, experience, and facilitating continuous engagements with all relevant stakeholders, we will help communities appreciate mental health disorders as illnesses like other illnesses and treat them as such.”

Reiterating this, Prof. Lukoye Atwoli, Deputy Director of the Brain and Mind Institute lauded the conference as a step in the right direction to address the challenges facing brain health in low- and middle-income countries.

“This inaugural conference seeks to begin these critical conversations and bring on board partners across the board to journey with BMI in achieving our vision of a healthy brain, and healthy world, by putting in measures that culminate in bringing the right care at the right time to the right place. Together we will go far,” said Prof. Lukoye.

The Brain and Mind Institute through the conference hopes to rally communities, governments, and practitioners in developing countries to make great strides in prevention, treatment, and awareness efforts to the silent pandemic by putting in place impactful and well-resourced strategies and interventions to help close gaps in mental health using innovative, culturally sensitive solutions.

The conference also aims to foster collaboration among stakeholders to promote the integration of brain health into overall health systems. In attendance are neuroscientists and researchers actively engaged in studying the brain’s functions and disorders, medical professionals and other healthcare providers specializing in brain and mental health, advocacy groups, policymakers and government officials keen on the latest research and developments on brain and mental health.

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