Strengthening mental health services in Sierra Leone: perspectives from within the health system.
Though mental and substance use disorders are a leading cause of disability worldwide, mental health systems are vastly under-resourced in most low- and middle-income countries and the majority of people with serious mental health needs receives no formal treatment. Despite international calls for the integration of mental health into routine care, availability of outpatient mental health services and integration of mental health into the broader healthcare system remain weak in many countries. Efforts to strengthen mental healthcare systems must be informed by the local context, with attention to key health system components. The current study is a qualitative analysis of stakeholder perspectives on mental health system strengthening in one low-income country, Sierra Leone. It utilizes locally grounded knowledge from frontline healthcare providers to identify constraints and opportunities for strengthening mental health care within each component of the health system. In-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted with 43 participants including doctors, nurses, community health workers, mental health advocates, mental health specialists, and traditional healers recruited from the Bo, Moyamba and Western Area Urban Districts. Interview transcripts were content-coded in NVivo using both a priori and emergent codes and aggregated into broader themes, utilizing the World Health Organization Health Systems Framework. Participants described an extremely limited system of mental health care, with constraints and obstacles within each health system component. Participants identified potential strategies to help overcome these constraints. Findings reinforce the importance of factors outside of the healthcare system that shape the implementation of mental health initiatives, including pervasive stigma towards mental illness, local conceptualizations of mental illness and an emphasis on traditional treatment approaches. Implications for mental health initiatives in Sierra Leone and other low-income countries include a need for investment in primary care clinics to support integrated mental health services and the importance of engaging communities to promote the utilization of mental health services.