The relationship between mental health and suicide is obvious: 90 percent of suicide-related deaths are linked to mental health conditions and substance use disorders.
According to the WHO, Africa has the highest age-standardised suicide rate worldwide and is home to six of the 10 countries with the highest suicide rates.
Low budgetary allocations to mental health – averaging just USD 0.50 per capita across the region, well below the WHO's recommended level – and a shortage of mental health specialists means the continent’s health systems are not equipped to provide adequate mental health care to individuals in distress.
Across much of Africa, these challenges are exacerbated by a poor understanding of suicide and its underlying factors, which leads to trivialisation, perpetuating stigma and hindering appropriate medical, policy and social responses.
The most damaging misconception is that suicide is inevitable. The science is clear: we have the power to prevent suicide with timely, evidence-based interventions.
Countries across the continent increasingly recognise the threat that suicide poses to public health and are drafting or implementing national suicide prevention strategies. Last year, Kenya launched Africa’s second strategy focused on prevention.
Meanwhile, Nigeria has just validated its National Suicide Prevention Strategic Plan Framework and other countries, including Ghana and Malawi, may follow suit. This momentum is closely aligned with Africa CDC, which published its first strategy covering mental health promotion last year and supported Sierra Leone in launching its Presidential Task Force on Mental Health in May 2023.
While encouraging, these examples remain outliers; the vast majority of African countries have yet to kickstart this important policy reform process.
An Africa where quality suicide prevention support is available, accepted and encouraged is possible if we collectively build on current momentum and implement high-impact national programmes, including well-funded and resourced crisis interventions.
Professor of Psychiatry at the Department of Psychiatry, College of Medical Sciences, Ahmadu Bello University Zaria, Nigeria.