PIH Launches Sierra Leone’s First Mental Health Helpline

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Hundreds of patients have received support, referrals

June 12, 2023

The mental health team at Partners In Health Sierra Leone. (Photo by Giuseppe Raviola/PIH)

The phones keep ringing.

Some people call seeking assistance for their anxiety or depression. Others call for help with time-sensitive emergencies, such as domestic violence or suicidal thoughts. Regardless of the reason, they all call for the same purpose: to receive free, confidential support.

Until recently, that wasn’t an option. Mental health resources were scarce and not integrated with other services.

In November, Partners In Health (PIH) Sierra Leone, in collaboration with the Ministry of Health and Sanitation, launched the country’s first toll-free, mental health helpline. Since its inception, more than 430 people have called. 

The helpline is staffed 24/7 by psychosocial counselors and a community health officer manager in Kono District, a rural eastern region of the country. When a person calls the line for themselves or a loved one, they receive a range of advice and resources. This includes basic mental health tips, addressing mental health myths and stigma, and linkage to follow-up medical care. 

Such a helpline was much needed in Sierra Leone. With a population of more than 8 million people and only three psychiatrists in the country, mental health services have historically been nearly nonexistent and until recently, largely centralized in the capital, Freetown. For many Sierra Leoneans, transportation and lack of access are barriers to receiving life-saving mental health care. 

The mental health helpline and other initiatives—such as PIH-supported Sierra Leone Psychiatric Teaching Hospital—are working to change that.

A Historic Need

When asked what inspired the launch of the helpline, Chenjezo Grant Gonani, PIH Sierra Leone’s mental health program manager, shared that it’s important to consider how much suffering the country has gone through.

“Sierra Leone has been a country faced with a lot of devastation,” says Gonani, citing the country’s 11-year civil war from 1991-2002, the 2014 Ebola outbreak, the 2017 mudslides, and the COVID-19 pandemic. “Yet, despite all of these unfortunate events, access to mental health treatment and psychosocial services are still extremely limited, and 90% of people are still not able to get the support they need.” 

The helpline seeks to fill that gap. 

Originally launched during the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, the line was designed for people quarantined at home or in isolation units. It was very successful  in offering immediate psychosocial support and linking people to care. So, the team brainstormed ways to expand the line beyond COVID-related scenarios. 

David Mafinda, psychosocial counselor at Partners In Health Sierra Leone. Photo by Bob Lamin/PIH

Before transitioning the line, the team did thorough research to set it up for success. Other organizations had developed similar lines, but they were short-lived. After a year of research, planning, and mobilizing resources, the line transitioned to a general mental health resource. 

During the first month, 250 people called. 

“Of course, we have had our challenges with the helpline,” states David Mafinda, a psychosocial counsellor. “For example, during Christmas time we had a little boy call the helpline and ask us for a bike. Another asked us for money. While we are many things, I had to explain that we are, unfortunately, not Santa Claus,” he says with a smile.

Lessons Learned

Today, the phones continue to ring, and people are calling in hours away from Kono, the pilot area. They’re calling from Makeni, Kenema, Falaba, and Freetown, likely because family and friends shared the number. To respond to this growing need, the helpline team is actively documenting where calls are coming from to offer location-specific referrals and, eventually, to fully expand helpline services with dedicated staff for those regions. Their immediate priority is to expand to Kailahun District, where many referrals are coming from.  

It’s a team effort. The mental health team is collaborating with PIH’s electronic medical records team to keep track of patient calls and the IT department to manage missed or dropped calls. The local mental health team also partners with PIH’s cross-site mental health team for technical advice and support.

As demand for services grows, more staff is needed. When the helpline started, there were originally four counsellors. Now, there are seven. Judith Conteh, who has been on PIH’s mental health team since 2019, is one those counselors. 

“The weapon that I used to serve my country during the 2014-2016 Ebola crisis was my psychosocial skills,” Conteh reflects. “Over the years, I have maintained my strong passion for this line of work. Watching people cope with their challenges is so rewarding and is what keeps me going.”

Originally published on pih.org

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