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BasicNeeds Network Launch: bringing together 100+ years of mental health implementation experience

Posted on: Monday, January 23rd, 2023

Erla Magnusdottir is CBM UK’s BasicNeeds Mental Health Coordinator.

In November 2022 we gathered in Nairobi to celebrate the launch of the BasicNeeds Network – a new chapter for BasicNeeds. The BasicNeeds Network, supported by CBM UK and CBM Global, brings together community-based mental health practitioners using the tried and tested BasicNeeds Model. By facilitating an exchange of expertise, mutual support and learning, the Network will help to promote better mental health for all, particularly in low-income settings. 

The BasicNeeds Network launch was a wonderful week, bringing together representatives from nine organisations working in mental health from 11 countries in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America. The Network is new, but the story of BasicNeeds is not and it felt like a big family reunion. Here below I want to tell you about BasicNeeds, celebrate the formation of the BasicNeeds Network and its members, and give a few takeaways from those members.

The journey so far

BasicNeeds (a mental health development organisation) was founded in 2000 by social entrepreneur Chris Underhill. At the time there was very little focus on mental health, especially in the Global South where BasicNeeds has implemented most of its work.

Underhill developed the Model for Mental Health and Development, which was a clever Model harnessing resources from within communities to cost effectively deliver mental health services even in the poorest and hardest to reach places.

Corestones of the Model included:

  • building capacity of the community and putting them in the driving seat
  • providing access to health services
  • developing self-help groups and supporting livelihoods

Recently the BasicNeeds Model has been updated but the core principles remain the same. The Model has always recognized that mental health conditions go beyond “health problems” but also affect an individual’s social and economic situation, which was ground-breaking thinking 20 years ago when the medical model around mental health prevailed. BasicNeeds grew quickly, the need was everywhere, and BasicNeeds was soon implementing the Model in 12 countries.

Celebrating the formation of the BasicNeeds Network and its Members

The work in each country has been managed by dynamic local leaders. These leaders have been fighting for better mental health in their countries for a long time and are not stopping anytime soon. These individuals also make up the newly formed BasicNeeds Network that was launched in Kenya in November 2022. All BasicNeeds Network members have tremendous experience: it is a network of experts in community-based mental health solutions.  

We (the BasicNeeds Network) look forward to sharing our knowledge with new members in due course as well as learning from them. The Network also gives opportunities for members to join forces to deliver large-scale mental health programmes across different countries and continents and to see impact at scale.

In this blog I really want to celebrate the Network individuals. Many network members have won awards and government recognition for their achievements, for example BasicNeeds Vietnam who won an award for their work on women and depression. BasicNeeds Ghana celebrated its twentieth birthday last year. Sustaining their work is not easy, particularly as they all started way before mental health was considered a global priority.

I also see the grit and persistence of all the Network members to be a key achievement. They work very hard day and night, making many unseen sacrifices. They are frequently away from family to travel to the field, they are up late at night completing funding applications (funding for mental health continues to be a problem), and through years of work they have seen a lot of suffering as a result of mental health neglect which can be challenging, but they continue. I used to be the BasicNeeds China Programme Manager. In cold northern China we facilitated mental health clinics, self-help groups and livelihood support. I would often affectionately squeeze the hands of mental health service users and their carers. I will never forget how cold their hands were. There are always layers of problems to address, ranging from someone needing urgent medication for Schizophrenia, to families being isolated and stigmatized, or carers being unable to feed or heat their homes. It was painful to witness how bad the situation had often become. But the BasicNeeds Model is a way in and allows the community to be involved from the beginning, addressing these needs step by step.

Takeaways from BasicNeeds Network Members

There are so many stories to be told within the BasicNeeds Network that give a lot of reason for hope and optimism.  Let me share here a few takeaways I had from the BasicNeeds Network gathering in Kenya:

  • Mental Health Self-Help Groups, if set up well, are very effective and sustainable

BasicNeeds Network members had examples of self-help groups that had been set up 15 years ago and were still going strong without any outside funding or input.

  • Even though prevalence of mental health conditions is increasing there is optimism among network members

It is easier today because there is growing awareness of the issue (for example anti-stigma movements being led by people with lived experience), and increased government recognition of the need with mental health laws being passed.

  • There are important lessons that can be shared between BasicNeeds countries in the Global South and the Global North

For example one network member, BasicNeeds US, is implementing the BasicNeeds Model in the US, showing the importance of harnessing the power within communities in order to meet growing mental health needs.

A Sense of Optimism

The title of this blog is Bringing together 100+ years of mental health implementation experience – which is what our collective experience adds up to. This depth of experience is a real asset of the BasicNeeds Network. For many they recognize that there is a mental health crisis but they don’t really know where to start. This Network knows exactly what to do. They are constantly rolling up their sleeves going into communities, facilitating those first difficult conversations about mental health, and helping the community come up with their own solutions. They have learned countless lessons on their journeys and are well placed to guide others.

The quote below from Adam Dokurugu Yahaya (BasicNeeds Ghana) reminds us of the urgency of addressing mental health needs globally. But I hope this blog gives some sense of optimism that there are solutions and individuals out there with a wealth of experience that can guide the way.

“Mental health conditions are not visible except for those critically ill. Because of this, it is under-prioritised and not seen as a serious issue until the person’s condition deteriorates. On a national scale, if we fail to give attention to mental health, we are sitting on a time bomb.“ Adam Dokurugu Yahaya, BasicNeeds Ghana