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The Mind Skin Link: new project will improve mental health and tackle stigma for people with Neglected Tropical Diseases

Posted on: Tuesday, September 8th, 2020

A new project in Nigeria will help to improve mental health support for people living with diseases like leprosy and lymphatic filariasis. Many people living with these conditions experience poor mental wellbeing, particularly depression and anxiety, often resulting from the rejection, stigma and discrimination they face due to physical impairment.

Conditions like leprosy, lymphatic filariasis and Buruli Ulcer, collectively known as “skin Neglected Tropical Diseases (NTDs)”, often cause physical impairments such as clawed hands, drop foot and nerve damage (leprosy), abnormal swelling of body parts (lymphatic filiariasis) and aggressive skin ulcers.

The new project, in partnership with The Leprosy Mission Nigeria and University of Jos, will deliver mental health screening and support to people with skin NTDs, piloting the approach set out by the World Health Organisation in its NTD and Mental Health Manual. Learning from the pilot project – in particular the feedback from individuals living with NTDs  and local health workers – will be used to further develop this important guidance document, which has been written with expert input from CBM.

CBM Global’s Mental Health Director, Julian Eaton, who contributed to the WHO NTD and Mental Health Manual, explains:

“We know that a very high proportion of people with diseases like leprosy experience conditions like depression and anxiety so it’s vital that projects to tackle these diseases also address mental health.  But currently, there is little guidance for organisations or governments about how to do this.  This pilot project, offering improved psychosocial support for people with lived experience of these diseases, will not only benefit the individuals in Benue State themselves, but will help fill this gap in knowledge and to share increased understanding of their priorities and needs. We hope this will not only help to inform other organisations and guide them in their interventions but also provide evidence of the need for more financial investment in the area of mental health and NTDs in the world’s poorest communities.”

In Nigeria, an estimated 20% people with lymphatic filiariasis experience mental health conditions – but the real figure may be much higher. As people with NTDs are often living in poverty and in rural areas, they are unlikely to be able to access the mental health care they need.

Through the project, trained front-line health staff working will carry out screening for identification of depression and anxiety among those with visible signs of skin NTDs in Benue State, Nigeria. Those experiencing these conditions will be offered psychosocial support. Interviews and focus groups with health workers and project participants will be used to assess the effectiveness of the guidance in the Mental Health and NTDs manual, forming an evidence base for further promotion and development. Ultimately, integrating mental health and psychosocial support and care in local services for people with NTDs and their families is likely to reduce stigma, improve wellbeing and encourage social inclusion.

This project receives financial support from the Coalition for Operational Research on Neglected Tropical Diseases (COR-NTD), through The Task Force for Global Health (TFGH) and is funded by UK aid from the British government.

Image: Kirsty Smith Chief Executive CBM UK meeting Mudassar, who has lymphatic filiariasis, at his home in Nigeria.