Cameroon: Alarm over high mental health problems among FWS and MSM

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Researchers have raised a red flag over the state of mental health among Female Sex Workers (FWS) and Men who have sex with Men (MSM) in Cameroon.

The situation is particularly grave for FWS also facing the highest HIV infection burden in the Central African country.

The survey carried out in five regions of Cameroon shows that out of the total of 2252 FWS interviewed, 1192 reported feeling down, depressed or hopeless. This is about 52 % of the FWS. An evaluation of the same group shows that 425 reported self-harm or suicidal thoughts.

Among the MSM, about 44 % of the total of 1321 interviewed said they were struggling with depressive disorders. In the same group, 22.3% (295/1320) reported self-harm or having suicidal thoughts.

Studies have shown that people with HIV are at a higher risk for mental health disorders due to internal and external factors.

The research titled: 2016 Integrated Biological and Behavioral Survey among Key Populations in Cameroon: Female sex workers and men who have sex with men, highlights gender-based violence, stigma and discrimination and criminalisation of sexual practices as affecting the wellbeing in the two groups.

The most common negative experiences related to sex work reported by FSWs were being blackmailed because of sex work activities, being arrested on charges related to sex work and being physically harassed or hurt. The FSW also reported often being forced to have sex against their will. Some FSWs reported exclusion and discrimination from family members.

Similarly, the MSM, blackmail, sexual violence by clients and law enforcers and discrimination mainly at health centers as some of the negative experiences affecting their mental health. Same-sex relations are criminalised in Cameroon, and laws against rape exclude male victims.

The research by Johns Hopkins University, Metabiota Cameroon, CARE USA in collaboration with the National AIDS Coordinating Council of Cameroon calls for comprehensive prevention and treatment programs will need to overcome barriers to engaging FSW and MSM in care, including stigma, discrimination, and gender-based violence.

People with HIV experience depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder, suicidal thoughts, and insomnia. These mental problems may stem from trying to cope c with diagnosis, symptom, social rejection and the side effects of certain antiretrovirals among other factors.

Consequently, the researchers have called for mental health services and comprehensive sexual health care to be integrated into key population-friendly HIV prevention services.

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