Open Access Research article

Population level mental distress in rural Ethiopia

Abebaw Fekadu12*, Girmay Medhin3, Medhin Selamu1, Maji Hailemariam1, Atalay Alem1, Tedla W Giorgis4, Erica Breuer5, Crick Lund5, Martin Prince6 and Charlotte Hanlon16

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychiatry, School of Medicine, College of Health Sciences, Addis Ababa University, PO Box 9086, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

2 King’s College London, Institute of Psychiatry, Department of Psychological Medicine, Centre for Affective Disorders, London, UK

3 Addis Ababa University, Aklilu Lemma Institute of Pathobiology, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

4 Federal Ministry of Health, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia

5 Alan J Flisher Centre for Public Mental Health, Department of Psychiatry and Mental Health, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa

6 King’s College London, Institute of Psychiatry, Health Services and Population Research Department, London, UK

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BMC Psychiatry 2014, 14:194  doi:10.1186/1471-244X-14-194

Published: 7 July 2014



As part of a situational analysis for a research programme on the integration of mental health care into primary care (Programme for Improving Mental Health Care-PRIME), we conducted a baseline study aimed at determining the broad indicators of the population level of psychosocial distress in a predominantly rural community in Ethiopia.


The study was a population-based cross-sectional survey of 1497 adults selected through a multi-stage random sampling process. Population level psychosocial distress was evaluated by estimating the magnitude of common mental disorder symptoms (CMD; depressive, anxiety and somatic symptoms reaching the level of probable clinical significance), harmful use of alcohol, suicidality and psychosocial stressors experienced by the population.


The one-month prevalence of CMD at the mild, moderate and severe threshold levels was 13.8%, 9.0% and 5.1% respectively. The respective one-month prevalence of any suicidal ideation, persistent suicidal ideation and suicide attempt was 13.5%, 3.8% and 1.8%. Hazardous use of alcohol was identified in 22.4%, significantly higher among men (33.4%) compared to women (11.3%). Stressful life events were widespread, with 41.4% reporting at least one threatening life event in the preceding six months. A similar proportion reported poor social support (40.8%). Stressful life events, increasing age, marital loss and hazardous use of alcohol were associated with CMD while stressful life events, marital loss and lower educational status, and CMD were associated with suicidality. CMD was the strongest factor associated with suicidality [e.g., OR (95% CI) for severe CMD = 60.91 (28.01, 132.48)] and the strength of association increased with increase in the severity of the CMD.


Indicators of psychosocial distress are prevalent in this rural community. Contrary to former assumptions in the literature, social support systems seem relatively weak and stressful life events common. Interventions geared towards modifying general risk factors and broader strategies to promote mental wellbeing are required.

Common mental disorders; Psychosocial distress; Mental distress; Suicidality; Hazardous alcohol use; Wellbeing; Developing country; Africa South of the Sahara; Sub-Saharan Africa; Ethiopia