Voice of Resilience: Youth Mental Health Interventions in Sierra Leone

May 30, 2024


Christopher Omumamu Maero

Senior Advocacy and Knowledge Management Officer


Kadiatu Bankolay has always been passionate about improving the livelihoods of communities, particularly for those affected by mental health issues in Sierra Leone. Over the years, the devastating complex mix of a brutal civil war, 1991-2002, where an estimated 50,000 people died and thousands maimed, the 2014-16 Ebola outbreak (the largest outbreak in the country since 1976), where 14,124 cases were reported with 3,956 people losing their lives, gender-based violence, poor health outcomes, and more recently, the COVID-19 pandemic, have contributed to significant levels of mental health distress in the country. A study on the burden of mental disorders in Sierra Leone indicates that by 2009, there was a treatment gap of 98 percent, with only 2058 of the estimated 102,000 with severe mental illness receiving treatment. Amidst these diverse challenges, Kadiatu sees an opportunity for relief and progress.

Through her organization, the Vulnerable Charity Foundation, Kadiatu leads several initiatives in the outskirts of Freetown. These include visiting mentally ill patients who have been abandoned on the streets or isolated by their communities and left in poor conditions. She provides them with food, drinking water, clothing, and a chance to bathe, all with the goal of helping these individuals reintegrate into their communities and receive proper care. Additionally, she ensures that deceased individuals who suffered from mental health issues are given dignified last respects.

Despite all her efforts, she faces stigma and constant reprimands from the community for engaging with people labeled as “possessed” and outcasts. Some go as far as accusing her of engaging in evil activities associated with witchcraft. Despite this, she has persevered, as she believes that her actions benefit the community.

Kadiatu’s story is one of many highlighting the efforts of individuals in society who have taken up the responsibility to address mental health challenges. This includes helping those who are severely ill, revealing issues of neglect, insufficient resources, and a lack of comprehensive intervention structures in the community.

Africa has a rich cultural heritage characterized by vibrance, originality, and authentic experiences However, societal neglect of our evolving landscape is affecting how we live and relate as individuals. The COVID-19 pandemic highlighted our unpreparedness and lack of resources, exposing the severe consequences of failing to plan and prioritize urgent societal needs.

It’s clear that more needs to be done to understand the causes behind various mental health issues. Across the continent, there are numerous challenges that directly impact people’s mental well-being. Recognizing the serious consequences of untreated mental health issues, it’s crucial for influential stakeholders with the power to allocate resources to prioritize mental health interventions promptly.

These interventions should be sustainable and long-lasting, requiring structured models that utilize real-time data and consider diverse contexts. They need robust support systems to ensure all necessary processes are properly planned and followed through. For someone like Kadiatu, who is working to support her community, her efforts are likely strained and may not be sustainable. It’s essential to bolster her capacity and restructure her approach to align with global best practices, ensuring her interventions are effective and have a lasting impact on the community.

Additionally, this structured approach provides local and regional cross-learning opportunities, benefiting Kadiatu as she engages with various groups in her work area.

In Sierra Leone and across Africa, the future of mental health interventions depends on collaboration among government, non-profits, and the community. By combining the dedication of individuals like Kadiatu Bankolay with comprehensive systemic support, we can build a more inclusive and efficient mental health system. This system should focus on educating to lessen stigma, providing enough resources for proper care, and establishing policies for long-term sustainability. Training and equipping local leaders will play a crucial role in reshaping the mental health landscape.

Improving mental health care in Sierra Leone is both a challenge and an opportunity. It requires changing societal attitudes and committing to long-term investments in mental health infrastructure. Kadiatu’s monumental work highlights the need for a stronger system to support and expand such grassroots efforts. By creating an environment where mental health is treated with the urgency and respect it deserves, Sierra Leone can set an example for other nations facing similar challenges. A brighter, more inclusive future is possible for everyone through collective action and a shared vision for better mental health care.