The Ombudsman and Parliamentary Committee on Health yesterday grilled Ministry of Health (MoH) for its alleged disregard of the mental health sector as evidenced by a poor referral system and shortage of specialised drugs.
The committee interacted with the Ombudsman following visits to two mental health institutions—Zomba and St John of God Hospitaller in Lilongwe.
In December last year, the Ombudsman released a report of investigations into the maladministration of service delivery and injustices on patients with mental disorders in the Central Region.
The report highlighted incidences where mental health patients had nowhere to seek treatment after MoH closed Bwaila Mental Unit.
The Ombudsman Martha Chizuma Mwangonde told the committee that she found an acute shortage of psychiatric medicines even when these were available at Central Medical Stores Trust (CMST).
She said: “This was not an issue of lack of money or drugs at central level, but inefficiencies by the district health office [DHO]. The drugs were not being ordered on time.”
The Ombudsman also recommended that following the closure of Bwaila Mental Unit, the staff should carry out supervisory visits to DHOs to ensure that patients are given adequate care but this had not been done.
She said it was her conclusion that the mental health service delivery was not being given the appropriate attention.
On her part, Parliamentary Committee on Health chairperson Juliana Lunguzi said their visit to Zomba Mental Hospital and St John of God indicated that mental illnesses were being neglected, going by the low budget and shortage of personnel.
She queried MoH Principal Secretary Dan Namarika why mental health was not included in the capital investment plan.
“The budget of mental health is the lowest and procurement services don’t seem to favour specialised drugs like those required for mental health patients,” she said.
In response, Namarika admitted that the health sector had not prioritised mental health, but said there was room to improve.
He admitted that community outreach for mental patients remained a challenge due to shortage of personnel at district health offices.
However, Namarika said in addition to the four psychiatrists in the country, the government would fill vacancies for 20 psychiatry nurses with part of the K500 million Parliament had approved for human resource recruitment and funding from Global Fund.
But he could not commit to increase the budget allocation to mental health from one to five percent as recommended by the Ombudsman in her report.
The report titled ‘Out of Sight, Out of Mind’ has since been submitted to the Legal Affairs Committee for forwarding to Parliament.