A New Solution for Mental Health in Liberia
The West African nation of Liberia once had a healthcare system that was the envy of its neighbors. But after decades of civil war, the system was left in tatters. Until recently, there were only 50 practicing physicians for a population of 3.7 million. More than 85 percent of the country remains unemployed and 65 percent live on less than $1 per day.
The psychological scars of war run deep. All Liberians experienced profound losses during the two-decade-long conflict. Most people were displaced from their homes at least once and many witnessed gruesome acts of violence. Human rights violations, rape and sexual violence, and the use of child soldiers were widespread. There is currently one practicing psychiatrist in the country and less than a handful of psychologists and social workers, according to David C. Henderson, MD, director of The Chester M. Pierce, MD Division of Global Psychiatry at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.
In recognition of the importance of mental health to Liberia’s overall recovery, the Minister of Health awarded Dr. Henderson a grant in 2009 to develop the country’s first National Mental Health Policy. Dr. Henderson led a multi-disciplinary team from MGH and Harvard to design a system that addressed both the chronically mentally ill and the many people who suffer from common disorders such as depression and anxiety.
"The lack of skilled mental health professionals in Liberia cannot be overstated."
- Dr. David Henderson, MGH Division of Global Psychiatry
Dr. Henderson, together with the University of Liberia and Harvard, has planned a Center of Excellence in Mental Health to build Liberia’s healthcare workforce. The Center will address the dire shortage of mental health practitioners in the country, train future Liberian experts and serve as a regional model for developing professional expertise in mental health.
“What are defined as ‘mental health services’ in developing countries — including Liberia — are almost always inadequate and questionably ethical,” says Dr. Henderson. “There is a critical need to develop professional-level specialists and to educate primary health workers. As part of an academic institution with training and research sites in the primary medicine system, the Center will help ensure that psychiatry is foremost a medical specialty that serves identified clinical needs with evidence-based interventions and practices that are culturally relevant to Liberia.”