Integrating mental health in primary healthcare in low-income countries: changing the future for people with mental disorders

​Carina Winkler Sørensen, Ole Bæk, Per Kallestrup & Jessica Carlsson
Nordic Journal of Psychiatry. Published online: 24 Oct 2016. DOI:10.1080/08039488.2016.1245784.


Background: Untreated mental disorders are a huge challenge for healthcare systems worldwide. Treatment possibilities are particularly scarce in low-income countries (LICs). WHO estimates that up to 85% of all people with a mental disorder in LICs do not have access to evidence-based treatment.

Aims: This paper seeks to explore the rationale behind the WHO recommendations for improving mental health services in LICs. At the core of these recommendations is an integration of mental health services into existing primary healthcare. This article presents available research supporting this approach. Furthermore, it highlights challenges needing special attention and opportunities demanding additional research to guide a comprehensive restructuring of a healthcare system.

Methods: A literature review of WHO documents and searches on PubMed for relevant supporting literature.

Results: Research from LICs that investigate mental health interventions is scarce. The evidence that does exist favours integration into primary healthcare. There is evidence that collaborative- and stepped-care interventions can provide viable treatment options for patients.

Conclusion: Integration of mental health services into primary healthcare seems like a viable solution to ensure that treatment becomes more available, even though the evidence is limited. Locally conducted research is needed to guide the development of sustainable evidence-based mental health treatment, involving relevant healthcare providers, with optimal task-sharing and possibilities for referral of complex cases. Furthermore, to achieve this, comprehensive political will and investments are necessary pre-requisites.


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