OPINION: Mental health of every Kenyan is a fundamental human right

OPINION: Mental health of every Kenyan is a fundamental human right

By Doris Kathia

Kenya has a high burden of mental illness due to general ill health among the population, psychosocial disability and premature mortality with huge gaps in access to care.

In Kenya, it is estimated that one in every 10 people suffers from a common mental disorder. The number increases to one in every four (20-25%) people among patients attending routine outpatient services.

The World Health Organisation’s 2017 report on the world mental health situation ranked Kenya fifth among African countries with the highest number of depression cases.

Moreover, the mental health task force (that was set up in November 2019 led by a team of experts in the field mandated to assess Kenya’s mental health systems including the legal, policy and administrative environment to identify areas that may benefit from reform, for optimal delivery) found that there exists high levels of depression and suicidal behavior, high levels of mental distress and substance use in Kenya and now with COVID-19 there has been a rise.

Despite the well outlined guidelines and priority actions in the mental health policy (Kenya Mental Health Policy 2015-2030), Kenya still faces a lot of challenges in regards to provision of optimal and affordable mental health care and treatment.

The policy outlines that mental health is a key determinant of overall health and socio-economic development. One of the biggest challenge is low awareness of mental disorders particularly, the symptoms of this conditions among the persons suffering from the condition and the community at large.

This has largely led to instances where mental illness continue to be marred by myths and misconceptions including being a curse, witchcraft and spiritual problem, instead of a disease that can be treated and managed if and when diagnosed and managed professionally. More often the affected people resort to isolation and don’t seek medical help.

Among the challenges faced by the people with psychosocial and mental disorders in the communities included; financial constraints, discrimination, stigma, fear of violence and inadequate availability of essential drugs for psychosocial and mental disorders.

While guidelines for the management of mental health conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic have been prepared, implementation remains a major challenge due to a poorly resourced mental health system.

There is no mental health surveillance system in place limiting ability to design evidence-based interventions. The Ministry of Health (MOH) through its Division of Mental Health has nonetheless embarked on efforts to deliver mental health care during the pandemic.

Unfortunately, the mental health response is occurring against a backdrop of an under-resourced mental health care system characterized by inaccessible services, an acute shortage of mental health workers and limited funding. This is hindering current efforts aimed at mitigating the mental health impact of COVID-19 in the community.

To mitigate the challenges faced by the mental health sector in Kenya, there is need to fast-track development and approval of a clear roadmap for mental health at the county and national level including the review of the Mental Health Act, finalising the Mental Health Policy, development and financing of a costed mental health strategic plan.

Enhance the capacity of caregivers, family members, community mental health champions, community health workers, local CSOs and local leaders on the rights of people with mental disorders and related issues in line with World Health Organisation’s quality rights in order to reduce stigma and discrimination.

Strengthen mental health budget advocacy at the county level in order to increase mental health budget investments to improve community based mental health programs that promote the rights, dignity and social inclusions of all persons with mental health conditions and psychosocial disabilities.

Strengthen mental health education and training to young people in and out of schools to promote mental health awareness and improve health seeking.

If untreated or attended to, mental disorders can create an enormous toll of suffering, disability and economic loss (WHO: 2003).

Mental disorders have an impact on individuals, families, communities and the nations. Persons with mental disorders often are not able to participate in society’s economic life due to the disability or discrimination.

The county and national governments should declare mental illness a national emergency of epidemic proportions in order to prioritize mental health as a public health and socioeconomic agenda.

Moreover, there is need for involvement of various stakeholders from the family and community level to the national level in the quest to ensure mental wellbeing of the people in the country.

Ms. Kathia is a youth advocate at the network for adolescents and youths of Africa (NAYA) Kenya.

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