Kenyans yet to embrace family members, friends who struggle with mental illness
A family in Central Kenya who recently prepared to bury their kin was in shock after the church informed them it would not take part in the ceremony because the deceased had committed suicide.
And in another case, Celine Onyango, had for the longest time been deemed as a problematic and rebellious child.
By the time she was in the third year of high school, she had been to three different schools with teachers and the administration complaining that they could not deal with her.
She is now 21-years-old but it was until recently that she was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and she is currently on a treatment plan.
On Monday evening, a university student was shot and injured after he gained unauthorised access into State House grounds.
A look at the Facebook profile of the Engineering student from Jomo Kenyatta University of Agriculture and Technology (JKUAT) showed that he may have been suffering from mental illness.
These are only three out of an estimated 1.9 million Kenyans said to be suffering from mental illness not forgetting many other cases unaccounted for.
In May, there were conversations around awareness on mental health; to dispel stigma and push for improvement of health facilities that cater to those with the illness.
However, as the month drew to a close, the conversations dimmed as other topics seemed to overshadow mental illness.
”In Kenya we are still far when it comes to mental health…our society is not entirely open at all to this topic. When one is sick, we opt to hide them and keep quiet.
“Mental health professionals on the other hand are very few,” Dr. Stephen Nganga, a psychologist and lecturer at Daystar University told Citizen Digital.
According to him, the public remains ill-informed when it comes to spotting cases of mental health, instead choosing to talk in hushed tones characterised by fear when they encounter someone who needs help.
“People have labelled mental illness to be ‘seeking attention’…I was scared of the stigma that would follow.” Betty Cynthia (Survivor) narrates her depression experience #MondayReport @WaihigaMwaura@TrevorOmbija pic.twitter.com/jVQJ8PzM8h
— Citizen TV Kenya (@citizentvkenya) March 25, 2019
Kenyans have been known to link mental illnesses to spirituality rather than medicine which in turn causes them to seek intervention of witch doctors if not religious leaders.
The church, for example, has clung to the belief that suicide is grave sin and this attitude does little to help dispel the stigma on victims and their families.
Consequences of mental disorders not only affect individuals with mental illness but reverberate through families, communities and the society in general.
For any meaningful changes to occur and remain sustainable, experts say talking about mental health needs to be seen as normal.
Dr. Oscar Githua, a forensic psychologist, asserts the need for religious institutions in the country to work on changing their perception and that of the congregation.
”Including communities of faith and their leaders in educating the masses on the need to see psychologists and counsellors when faced with mental issues makes it more credible as they are a trusted authority,” Dr. Githua told Citizen Digital.
President Uhuru Kenyatta on June 1 this year acknowledged that ‘depression has become a common phenomenon and it affects persons from all walks of life and ages’.
He directed Government agencies to formulate an appropriate policy to deal with the rise in mental health fatalities.
This is not the first time that he has spoken publicly about mental health and noted the significant role of public health care practitioners.
On December 13 last year, during the launch of the Universal Health Coverage (UHC) program in Kisumu, the President said residents of the four pilot counties would begin to access essential services including mental health.
Mr. Kimani Githongo, Chairperson of the Kenya Counselling & Psychological Association and Founder of the Family Wellness Center argues that delay of formulating policies aggrieves the situation.
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”Already the government knows what it can do. If it implements the Counselling and Psychologists Act, the mental health system in Kenya would change for the better. A counselling and psychology Board should be set up to regulate the profession similar to what is done for legal practice,” he said.
Creation of such a Board he adds would require budgetary allocation but this should not deter the State from treating it as a matter of urgency.
”Further, the government will have to employ professionals in all institutions and not only the few in government hospitals,” he added.