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Mental health key for a thriving public sector

2023-09-29  Correspondent

Mental health key for a thriving public sector

Hilia Munzenze

Being employed in the public sector means being part of something bigger and caring more about efficient and effective service delivery to the people of Namibia.  

This means service provision has to be done in such a manner that it promotes the welfare and lawful interests of the Namibian public. However, being a public servant is not the easiest task, as it comes at a price.  Being a public servant entails having so many responsibilities. Public servants are often under a lot of pressure from demanding citizens and administrative responsibilities. 

As a result, employees in the public sector endure job-related stress when they are confronted with job demands and pressures that exceed their ability to manage. 

These characteristics have been related to high levels of burnout and mental health issues. Safety and mental well-being are critical to public servants and very crucial for effective and efficient public service. 

Studies show that when mental health in the workplace is not properly and promptly addressed, it may lead to poor individual health and even poorer individual health outcomes, which subsequently lead to an employee having to make life adjustments to accommodate their new reality. 

Due to the lack of support and the necessary medical attention, this often leads to an employee having to quit their jobs. When an employee loses his/her source of income, the effects of such loss of income do not only affect that particular employee but extend to other individuals, such as family members.  It is often family members who have to provide care to persons affected and as a result, opportunities to work, go to school and other means to better oneself are often reduced.

This hurts the financial standing of not only the individual affected by mental illness but his/her family and society at large.

The UNGA reports that an average of 12 billion working days are lost due to mental illness. When public servants do not show up to work due to mental health issues, their work comes to a standstill; subsequently, services are not provided and income is not being generated.  The UNGA estimates an economic loss of 16 trillion USD for the period between 2011-2030 in economic output. A study conducted by the World Health Organisation (WHO) in December 2022 revealed that Africa had the highest suicide rate in the world, with an estimate of 11.2 per 100 000 population in 2019, compared to a global average of 9.0 per
100 000 according to the Integrated African Health Observatory fact sheet on suicide in the African region.

In addition, the suicide rate for men is 18 per 100 000 population in the region, compared to 12.4 per 100 000 population globally, making it the highest suicide rate. 

Namibian suicide rate is reported to be 9.7 in a 100 000 population. Making it the fourth-highest suicide rate, compared to neighbouring countries, such as South Africa (23.5), Botswana (16.10) and Zimbabwe (14.1). 

For each public servant who commits suicide, there is a loss of income generated in a household and community at large. There is a person whose financial or economic standing is affected, either directly or indirectly. 


Namibia is a country with a broad cultural spectrum. Each culture and religion has its own beliefs and practices.

 Therefore, the mental health discourse is often very diverse and very different. More often than not, the conversation surrounding mental health or mental illness in particular is very negative and often fuelled by the stigma surrounding mental illness.  In addition, when evaluating the mental health setting in Namibia, it is important to take into consideration Namibia's past, that of an oppressive and racially discriminatory apartheid system, as well as the liberation movement that followed, which can be considered as bringing numerous emotional and cognitive stresses with them that would have future consequences for the population's mental health. Individuals suffering from mental illnesses are thought to face much higher levels of stigma and prejudice. A literature review by Overton and Medina (2008) on mental illness and the stigma associated with it revealed that people suffering from mental illness are viewed as being among the most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of the cultures in which they live.  The assumptions and attitudes about mental illness can be as harmful as the disease itself. The stigma associated with mental illness as a result of these incorrect assumptions about what it means to have a mental disease is a crucial factor influencing many instances remaining unreported and many employees from not receiving the necessary treatments.  The cultural and religious beliefs as well as the stigmatisation of mental health mostly affect man; it is culturally believed that men do not suffer from mental illness, as it is perceived to be a sign of weakness, which subsequently leads to a high suicide rate in men, as opposed to women. Importance of mental health 

Mental health is inherent and essential to everyone's existence. It has an impact on how we think, feel and act. It is the foundation of our ability to make decisions, form connections and affect the world we live in. Mental health is also a fundamental human right. It is also essential for the personal, communal and socioeconomic growth of communities and countries at large. It is always a part of us, even when we are not aware of it. 

Mental health is often looked at from an angle of wellness, and hardly ever addressed in just how important it is in ensuring sustainable development.

The UN only introduced mental health into the Sustainable Development Goals in 2015. 

The United Nations finally acknowledged the weight of mental illness and further went ahead to regard mental health as a priority for development goals for the next 15 years. 

Mental health has since been included in not only new development goals but also in development targets and development indicators. 

The UN has made provision for the inclusion of clear mental health targets and indicators as part of the Sustainable Development Goals, and through this inclusion has taken into consideration the rights and needs of millions and millions of people. 

The recognition of mental health by the UN, as part of the SDGs, is advocating towards the mobilisation of international funding and policy development as well as supporting other sustainable development goals.

A survey by WHO in 2004 identified mental health to be one of the major issues that can affect the health system of any country and that, at the very core, it affects development, especially in low- and middle-income countries.

Mental health is one of the key factors of sustainable development and once it is not addressed, it can cause a major sustainable development regression. Mental health and behavioural problems reportedly contribute to 23% of the world's health challenges, such as disabilities; this is more than cancer and cardiovascular diseases combined. Men, with mental health issues in high-income countries, die on an average 20 years earlier, with women dying 15 years earlier than the life expectancy of the rest of the population. The life expectancy of men and women with mental illness is even less in low-income countries. In addition, mental health affects the majority of a country’s working class.

Mental health in the public sector is not only a health issue, but it is also a development issue. The economic development of societies is linked to the mental health conditions of their people.  There is a need for the inclusion of mental health in policymaking and ensuring that these policies are implemented. The public sector cannot continue to ignore the mental health needs of its servants.  In addition, there is a need to ensure a mentally conducive working environment in the public sector. Mentally fit employees yield results. Mentally fit employees are productive employees which are essential for sustainable economic development. However, to achieve a public sector that encourages mental health, there is a need to further improve and expand access to mental health care. In addition, the discourse of mental health should be openly encouraged to continue the dis-stigmatisation of mental health. 


*Hillia Munzenze is a Master’s Degree candidate at the Unam, specialising in public sector management.  

2023-09-29  Correspondent

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