Liberia: Outgoing Finance Minister Admits to a Mental Health Illness in Closed Door Donor Meeting; Experts Commend His Disclosure, Warning Against Stigma

Liberia: Outgoing Finance Minister Admits to a Mental Health Illness in Closed Door Donor Meeting; Experts Commend His Disclosure, Warning Against Stigma

MONROVIA, Liberia—Finance Minister Boima Kamara has said health issues were the cause of his absence from duty over recent months leading President Boakai to request his resignation as reported by Front Page Africa on Monday. Front Page Africa/New Narratives have learned that in a closed-door UN donor meeting on July 3 the minister confided his illness was, in fact, related to his mental health.

By Anthony Stephens with New Narratives

Two independent sources, requesting anonymity to discuss a sensitive matter, confirmed to FPA/NN that Minister Kamara apologized to the surprised July 3 UN Informal/Cooperating Partners Group meeting for his absence saying he had been seeking treatment in Ghana for mental health issues.

Minister Kamara’s admission is groundbreaking in a country that doesn’t acknowledge psychological wellness as a part of overall health, has few mental health providers and views mental illness as taboo, often aligning it with witchcraft. Mr. Kamara is the first Liberian government official to publicly reveal his struggles with mental health. Liberian public health advocates are celebrating his bravery in doing so.

“I want to commend him for that,” said Eric T. Weah, Coordinator of Research Monitoring and Evaluation in the Mental Health Unit at the health ministry. “I want to tell him that just by coming out serves as a motivational force to encourage others who are experiencing mental health problems to say it, so they can get helped.”

There’s no available national data on the number of people affected by mental health disorders in Liberia, but a 2016 WHO report said “as many as 1 in 5 Liberians suffer a mild to moderate mental disorder.”

In a country already grappling with trauma from the brutal civil wars compounded by more recent psychological wounds from the Ebola and COVID-19 outbreaks, public health officials said a high percentage of Liberian suffer from a condition known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. And they said Kamara’s openness about his health presents a golden opportunity for Liberians to finally acknowledge and seek treatment.

“It’s something that we want to encourage,” Mr. Weah said. “Because one of the ways we can manage our problems is to be able to express it, so people who are trained in that area can be able to provide some services and help for us. Stigma is something that we can’t get rid of, but we can reduce it because stigma in itself prevents people from seeking care. What we can do as a country and people is to do more awareness.”

Eric T. Weah, Coordinator of Research Monitoring and Evaluation in the Mental Health Unit at the health Ministry.

Mr. Kamara did not respond to requests for comment on his health or his reported resignation. On Monday Front Page Africa reported that President Boakai asked Mr. Kamara to tender his resignation. The Executive Mansion did not respond to interview requests seeking to clarity on whether the president was aware Minister Kamara’s health issues related to mental health.

Mr. Kamara, who also served as finance minister in the Sirleaf administration, faced growing pressure over his performance as finance minister over the past six months. He submitted the 2024 budget to the legislature three months late, forcing the legislature to approve an emergency spending of $US41.3 million from the president for the government to operate.

Additionally, Mr. Kamara and the ministers of Justice and Public Works awarded $US22.4 million worth of road contracts to about 10 companies without the approval of the body. Kamara’s ministry had provided $US8 million of that amount to the road construction companies.

Another controversial decision involved Mr. Kamara’s collaboration with the Liberia Refining Company to enter into a loan agrement with Ecobank without the approval of the legislature.

Mr. Kamara did, however, tell the House of Representatives last week – before the UN partners’ meeting – that he had made a “medical trip to Ghana.”

“If he can tell people ‘I went to Ghana for treatment for mental disorder’ that was not a wrong thing,” said Alexander Blackie, Workforce Development Officer, at The Carter Center, the US nonprofit founded by former American President Jimmy Carter to build psychosocial care in Liberia and other post-war settings. “That was the best thing he ever said in my view. I congratulate [him] for saying ‘I was being treated for mental illness.’ That was a bold step he took.”

Mental health is a global concern, with the “1 in every 8 people or 970 million people around the world living with a mental disorder,” according to a 2019 WHO report. Mr. Weah said the 2014 and 2016 Ebola outbreaks and the COVID Pandemic had devastating impacts on the mental wellbeing of the population. The Ebola epidemic claimed the lives of 4,809 people. COVID killed 295.

The number of mental health practitioners in Liberia is low. Liberia has only five psychiatrists, 368 mental health clinicians and 100 drug addiction professionals, Mr. Weah said.

“We are also experiencing natural disasters like fire outbreaks,” said Mr. Weah. “If we will go back to conduct a prevalent study, that 40 percent will be more. From the rough figures from service data, I think we are moving towards 70 percent, the estimated percentage of people living with Post Trauma Stress Disorder.”

Mr. Blackie counsels people suffering from an array of conditions, including depression, anxiety, aggression, disruptive behaviour and eating disorders. He worries Liberians’ mental health is declining, especially in urban and rural areas worst affected by the Ebola and COVID health crises and civil wars.

“For me, I can estimate 30-40 percent of people living with PTSD [Post Trauma Stress Disorder]in this country from my experience,” said Mr. Blackie. “I feel people in the ages of 35-40 suffer it a lot because some were born during the war. Most people in the 70s-80s, have coped with the circumstances. But the young people are living with it because their lives were tampered with during the crisis. Some were not able to go to school. And when they think about why they didn’t go to school and think about what the wars did to them, they will live with the same PTSD.”

Both Mr. Blackie and Mr. Weah challenged the government to provide more funding for mental health and build the capacity of practitioners combating mental illnesses in Liberia. Additionally, they said a public campaign to increase awareness and empathy is needed.

“The community should be educated that when people get mental illness, they are not dead,” said Mr. Blackie. “They are not supposed to be stigmatized. They are supposed to be treated just like when people have HIV they can go for treatment. They can live a better life if we care for them, and we treat them. We should have empathy for them and treat them like human beings.”

Alexander Blackie is a mental health expert at The Carther Center.

Both Mr. Blackie and Mr. Weah challenged the government to provide more funding for mental health and build the capacity of practitioners combating mental illnesses in Liberia.

This story was a collaboration with New Narratives. Funding was provided by the Swedish Embassy in Liberia which had no say in the story’s content.

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