Why mental health matters

To lead a healthy lifestyle, you need to pay equal attention to your physical fitness and mental wellbeing. Focusing on one aspect and neglecting the other can lead to drastic outcomes, so you need to pay attention to your mental health.

In this article, we help you understand: why mental health is important to leading a wholesome lifestyle and discuss some risk factors that trigger mental health issues. We will also discuss the causes of mental illness and a few early-stage signs of mental illness that you need to know about.

No age or gender is immune from mental illness. It can begin at any age, from childhood through later adult years, but most cases begin earlier in life. Men and women are not equally affected by the different types of mental illnesses. For example, worldwide, anxiety disorders and depression are more common in women than in men, while psychotic disorders are more common in men than in women.

The effects of mental illness can be temporary or long lasting. You can have an acute episode of mental illness or a long standing illness. Also, you can have more than one type of mental health disorder at the same time. For example, you may have depression and a substance use disorder.


Mental health is paramount for living a wholesome lifestyle

Mental Health is a combination of our cognitive, behavioral and emotional wellbeing. It impacts our decision-making skills and the way we handle stress and cope with other hardships of life.

As per the statistics listed in The Lancet Global Health report on Mental Health in Africa, the average rate of outpatient visits for mental health care in Africa is just 14 per 100,000 population. This is extremely low when compared to the global annual outpatient visit rate of 1051 per 100,000 population.1

So, to keep yourself mentally fit and achieve a wholesome lifestyle, you must maintain a mental health balance. Negligence in keeping your mental wellbeing intact can have a significant impact on your overall health.


Risk factors contributing to mental illness

Before we discuss common causes of mental illness and few of the early warning signs that should raise mental health concerns, you should understand some of the risk factors that may be associated with mental illness in an individual.

  • Biological factors: Like your inherited genes or family history.
  • Real-life experiences: If you suffered any chronic physical trauma, abuse, assault, deprivation, or lived in war-torn environment, etc., in childhood or adulthood, it can easily put you at risk for mental health problems moving forward. 
  • Malnutrition: Deficiencies in balanced diet including of certain vitamins and minerals in your diet may also contribute to mental health problems.
  • Substance use: Acute or chronic use of certain psychoactive drugs like alcohol, Cocaine, Amphetamine, LSD, Ecstasy, Marijuana, etc., may has been associated with various types of mental health problems. 
  • Stressful life situations: Your financial status, your family dynamics, death of a loved one or a divorce, military or war experience are examples of stressful life situations that may trigger mental illness.
  • Chronic medical illness: In some individuals, having to deal with ongoing and/or chronic medical illness may contribute to mental health issues.
  • Brain damage: Mental illness may arise as a complication of traumatic injury to the brain.
  • Living in isolation: Living in isolation and lack of social bonding within healthy relationships can be a trigger for mental illness.
  • Previous history: Any prior history of mental illness is a red flag for recurrence of mental illness in the future. 


"Mental Health is a combination of our cognitive, behavioral and emotional wellbeing. It impacts our decision-making skills and the way we handle stress and cope with other hardships of life."


Causes of mental illness

The causes of mental illnesses generally fall into three broad categories; genetic, environmental and brain chemistry. 

  • Genetic traits. A history of mental illness in one’s immediate family raises the likelihood of mental illness occurring in an individual. Certain genes have been identified to increase the risk of developing a mental illness, one’s life situation may trigger it.


  • Environmental exposures before and after birth. Exposure to environmental stressors, inflammatory conditions, toxins, alcohol or drugs while in the womb and later in life are sometimes linked to mental illness.


  • Brain chemistry. Naturally occurring brain chemicals called neurotransmitters are released from nerve endings of brain cells when they are talking to one another. When these brain chemicals are produced and released in insufficient or excessive quantities, brain cells may malfunction and mental illness may occur. Examples of mental illnesses that are linked to neurotransmitter imbalance include depression, anxiety and bipolar disorder.


“The average annual rate of outpatient visits for mental health care in Africa is just 14 per 100,000 population. This is extremely low when compared to the global annual outpatient visit rate of 1051 per 100,000 population”. - Lancet Global Health. 2018


Concerning early signs and symptoms to look out for

Mental illness signs and symptoms are generally reflections of dysfunction in affect, memory, thoughts and behaviors.

Every health issue has its signs and symptoms and knowing about the early warning signs and symptoms of mental illness helps you seek medical attention early either for yourself or a loved one. Note that the signs and symptoms discussed below may vary depending on the specific disorder, Consequently, not all examples discussed will be present at once in any case of mental illness. 

Examples of signs and symptoms of mental illness

  • Sadness and lack of interest

Expression of feelings of sadness and lack of interest is an early warning symptom and sign of mental illness.

  • Unnatural mood swings

You would start experiencing random mood swings, a sudden outburst of emotions without a valid reason and other behavioral changes in your emotional state.

  • Excessive fears or worries or extreme feelings of guilt

Over dwelling on fears, worries and expression of guilt is an important hallmark of mental illness. 

  • Low energy

You may express feelings of tiredness and low energy and not engage in any activities.

  • Lower inclination towards social gatherings

You would keep away from all social interactions possible; be it in the form of parties, or meeting with friends. You will also start losing interest in all daily activities and would prefer keeping to yourself. 

  • Disturbed sleep and loss of appetite

People who suffer from mental illness demonstrate oftentimes abrupt change in their eating and sleeping habits. Their sleeping pattern may become irregular, excessive or not enough. They may also lose their appetite or start binge-eating.

  • Confused thinking and poor concentration

Having the right mental status is essential to allow your brain to process everything correctly. However, if you suffer from mental problems, you may notice a considerable downfall in your logical thinking and concentration power, severity of which can also lead to other psychological after effects.

  • Suicidal thinking

This is an important sign to look out for. People with mental illness may often talk of harming themselves or others and may indeed have or make plans for carrying such acts out.

  • Detachment from reality

Excessive suspicion (paranoia), expression of hearing unreal voices or seeing unreal objects (hallucinations) and detachment from reality are observed in some mental illnesses.

  • Inability to problem solve and/or cope with stress

You may feel overwhelmed with minor stress and demonstrate little interest in addressing problems that come up in everyday life.

  •  Sex drive changes

Changes in sex drive, especially lack of interest in sex is common in some mental illnesses like depression. Excessive sex drive may also be seen in some other types of mental illnesses.

  • Excessive anger, hostility or violence

Not infrequently, mental illness may present with early anger management issues with demonstration of hostility, or sometimes anger.

  • Psychomotor

You may exhibit a lack of energy, slowness and low motor activity. On the other hand you may exhibit purposeless high energy and excessive motor activity. 

  • Physical complaints

Some people with mental illness may frequently complain and/or dwell on physical complaints like stomach or back pains, headaches, multiple body aches and pains and other unexplained medical symptoms.


When to seek medical attention

In view of considerable societal stigma associated with mental illness worldwide, including in Africa, most people with mental illness do not seek medical help early. 

Additional compounding factors preventing early seeking of medical help for mental illness in Africa are: 

  • Entrenched cultural beliefs and practices as to the causes of mental illness.
  • Low public awareness of the early warning signs and symptoms of mental illness.
  • Scarcity of health personnel specialising in mental health, According to the WHO in 2014 - 2016, in low income countries, the majority of which are in Africa, there 0.1 psychiatrist per 100,000 population, compared with 10 - 40 and above in middle and high income countries like Europe and the United States.
  • Scarcity of health facilities, both public and private that specialise in mental health care. For this reason most people in need of mental health care in low income countries as in Africa have to travel long distances to assess any kind of care.
  • Cost. Many countries in Africa are at early stages of instituting public or private health insurance. For this reason the cost of health care generally is out of reach of the average citizen. Even where some measure of public subsidy for health care is available, the cost of copay and/or coinsurance camouflaged in different terms also inhibit access to mental and general health.



In light of the above, it is not uncommon for mental health patients in Africa to seek care from traditional healers or religious institutions. Care received in these situations are often primitive, sometimes inhumane, and most often counterproductive.

There is absolutely no substitute to seeing a well-trained doctor or psychiatrist in the treatment of mental illness. 

If you have any of the signs or symptoms of a mental illness described above or see them in any loved one, see your doctor or a psychiatrist as soon as possible. Note that mental illnesses like other physical illnesses do not improve on their own. Indeed left untreated, a mental illness may get worse over time and cause other serious problems including the risk of death.



Mental illness is not uncommon. It is very important to be knowledgeable in early identification of the common early signs and symptoms of the disorder, since early access to orthodox treatment produces the best desirable outcome.


  1. Samkoh, O., Sevalie, S., and Weston, M. Mental health in Africa. The Lancet Global Health. 2018.. 
  2. World Health Organisation. Global statistics on Psychiatrist per 1000,000 population. 2019 




Published: November 23, 2019

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