What is mental health one may ask? This is one topic that most Africans find hard to broach as many people believe that it is not a condition that anyone may suffer from. There is a lot of stigma and myths around mental health. For instance, many Kenyans term it as a white man’s problems or a ‘rich-kid manenos.’
In Nairobi alone it was estimated by the Ministry of Health that one in every ten people suffer from a common mental disorder. The Taskforce on Mental Health even recommended that mental health be declared a national emergency of epidemic proportions. It can thus be implied that mental health is a serious issue that needs to be given a lot of attention especially during this COVID-19 era.
Article 43 of the constitution of Kenya affords each of us the right to health. As per international law, the Kenyan government is under an obligation to observe, respect, protect, promote and fulfill this particular right. The WHO defines health as a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. This means that the right to health cannot be fully realized without taking into account the physical, social and mental aspects of health.
What then constitutes mental health? The World Health Organization defines mental health as the state of well-being where a person is able to realize their own abilities and cope with the normal stresses of life while also making a contribution to their community. Therefore when one finds themselves unable to cope with the normal stresses of life, they should probably seek medical assistance or talk to someone they trust about it instead of keeping it bottled up.
In Kenya most people tend to look the other way or just ignore the whole conversation on mental health. I’m not quite sure if it is because of our upbringing or because we consider it a non-issue. The WHO’s report in 2017 ranked Kenya as fifth among African countries with the highest number of depression cases. This clearly shows that despite the various steps we have taken as a country to address mental health, we are not doing enough.
Though we have a Mental Health Policy, which gives guidelines and strategies of how to achieve an optimal health status, our mental health infrastructures are wanting. Worse still, the levels of awareness on mental health issues are extremely low. The WHO 2017 report shows that only 29 of the 284 level 4 hospitals in Kenya offer mental health services while psychiatric units are only available in 26 out of the 49 counties. Further, the country only has one psychiatric hospital; the Mathare National Teaching and Referral Hospital.
At the university, I have interacted with several people from various backgrounds going through unimaginable circumstances and the only way they can cope is by ‘kupiga sherehe’ weekend after weekend. This seemed to be working until the corona virus hit. Due to lockdowns and other containment measures, people are cooped up in the house 24/7. There is no way to keep ignoring the loud voices in our heads that make them want to jump into a hole. No way of ignoring the small but stressful things that ignite anxiety and anger.
The virus has also increased economic stress since one million Kenyans have lost their jobs and can barely afford food and other basic necessities. There has also been an increase in gender based violence. Consequently, this has augmented mental health issues that already existed. For instance; nearly half of the adolescents (46%) living in informal settlements in Nairobi reported having felt down, depressed, or hopeless while (81%) said they felt threatened, concerned, scared or anxious because of COVID-19 in a 2020 study conducted by population council. Further, the Director of Criminal Investigations recently reported 483 suicide cases between May and July 2021. This is a sharp increase from the 196 cases reported in 2019 by the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics.
Had people known about mental health, how to cope with the stress, and where to get help all these incidents would have reduced. It is thus high time for the country to acknowledge mental health and its significance to our development. The government should engage in more initiatives that increase the public’s awareness on mental health to battle the myths and stigmatization. It should also improve the mental health infrastructure by for instance building other psychiatric hospitals and training more personnel on mental health. There is also a need to make mental healthcare services more affordable. This can be effected by establishing a suicide crisis hotline whereby Kenyans can receive free counselling services.
Author: Fauve Mangich