Rethinking Kenya’s state of mental health amidst Covid-19

Our Mental Health is always at risk, surrounded by stress, anxiety disorders and depression, among other risk factors. Informed decisions, right living and frequent self-assessment are of unequalled importance.

As Good Health blog puts it, “Many people find themselves personally involved with the topic of mental health.

We may be affected when a loved one experiences a mental health issue.”

Understanding what to say, how to act, or what we can do to help is not always clear. Other times, we might be the one who is struggling.

Anxiety, depression, trauma—these conditions and others have affected billions of people in history. More are still getting affected.

Though many people think that the absence of a disease means an healthy individual, digging deeper into a healthy life unveils more.

The World Health Organization (WHO) defines health as “A state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.”

This may incorporate the ability to think productively, make informed decisions, be physically and psychologically prolific, relate well with others and have the wherewithal to take part in positively rolling the society forward in developmental spheres.

Mental health, however, has remained an expensive gem, which has eluded the lives of many. 

Developing countries like Kenya carry the larger burden of mental health related issues among it’s citizenry.

What statistics say

A 2017 Report by WHO ranked Kenya the fifth country in Africa with highest record of depression cases.

Stress, anxiety and abuse of drugs and substances features in the list of mental troubles as well.

Mental Health experts have since pointed out that among those seeking routine medical attention, a staggering 1 out of every 4 people in Kenya suffers from a mental health related complication.

These range from mild to severe disorders.

With covid-19 having re-arranged our societies with fear, bereavement, mass job losses, seclusion and financial stress, the numbers might prove higher.

In response to the president’s directive in combating the mental health crisis, Kenya’s Mental Health Taskforce was formed in November 2019.

It was meant to address the mental health concerns of Kenyans and help guide the government on resource allocation for mental health.

On 7th July 2020, the Taskforce recommended to the president that mental health should be declared a national public health emergency.

It reasoned out that the high burden of mental illness is a threat to national development.

It further pointed out that the government should reduce the mental illness burden by providing funds for promotive, preventive and curative interventions.

However, the government has been reluctant in setting aside a separate budget to specifically address the mental health crisis bedevilling Kenyans.

WHO’s report further indicates that Kenya has therefore remained among the paltry 28% WHO member states globally without such a separate budget.

Kenya’s expenditure on mental health stood at 0.01% of the total budget.

This has translated to insufficient infrastructure and resources to deal with the crisis.

A 2017 report by the Auditor General indicated that only 26 out of the 47 counties had psychiatric units.

The thorn in the eye, however, is the low level of awareness on mental health disorders.

Patients and the society still grope in the darkness, unaware of the specific symptoms.

The misleading myth

Informed by the African set of beliefs, many have blamed evil spirits, curses and witchcraft for their mentally ill friends and relatives.

Turning to both traditional and faith-based healers, many have not sought essential medical care from health facilities.

Sadly, in Kenya and many other African nations, stigmatization of mentally unhealthy people has taken root.

It robs patients of the required attention, human care and empathy they require, just like any other patient.

Addressing Mental Health, WHO Europe notes that stigma is a major cause of discrimination and exclusion: It affects people‘s self-esteem, disrupts their family relationships and limits their ability to socialize and obtain housing and jobs.

It also hampers the prevention of mental health disorders, promotion of mental well-being and provision of effective treatment and care.

As well, it contributes to human rights abuse.

It’s the same narrative in Kenya.

Demi Lovato couldn’t address it any better, “Mental health is something that we all need to talk about, and we need to take the stigma away from it.

So let’s raise the awareness. Let’s let everybody know it’s ‘okay’ to have a mental illness and addiction problem.”

In most parts of the African setting, including Kenya, mentally disordered people are tagged “mad”, secluded and left foraging for their own lives.

An Illustration of the signs and symptoms of depression, a sign of mental instability. Illustration/Psychom.

A struggling country

Kenya has therefore continued to struggle to offer mental health care.

In most African countries, mental health patients with serious disorders have no access to the required medical attention.

Psychiatrists and mental health specialists are vey few in the country.

The larger percentage can only be accessed in Mathare National Hospital, Kenyatta National Hospital and a few private facilities, all at high costs.

What should the government do?

The very recommendations by the Mental Health Taskforce are sufficient to revert the crisis, only if well implemented.

Financial support by government to health facilities and Non-governmental bodies tackling mental problems, employment and proper training of more mental health personnel and incorporation of mental health lessons into the Kenyan curriculum from primary school to university among other recommendations are the only way out.

The Kenya Mental Health Action Plan 2021-2025 commits the country into investing on  different spheres touching on the mental health of Kenyans.

Such include Mental health leadership and governance, Human resources development and management, Mental healthcare financing and Universal Health Care, Mental health services delivery and Infrastructure for mental health services among other areas.

Implementing this action plan by the government would move Kenya into a safer place, with informed citizens and required facilities and medication.

Kenya’s Ministry of Health seems to have embraced the words of Glenn Close that, “What mental health needs is more sunlight, more candor, and more unashamed conversation.”

On 17 May 2021, it hosted a multi-stakeholder event to address the overhanging crisis through a mental health investment case.

During the event, Dr. Rashid Aman, Kenya’s Health Chief Administrative Secretary, noted that “Health is wealth and there is no health without mental health.”

The Russian Government is funding the investment case in Kenya.

Dmitry Maksimychev, the Russian Ambassador to Kenya noted that “The investment case will provide the rationale for increased investment in clinical and preventive interventions.”

While jumping into foreign aid, however, the government of Kenya should commit itself into the fight, setting aside finances to combat the looming crisis from the next financial year onwards.

It should be quick to implement the recommendations by the Mental Health Taskforce, the Action Plan 2021-2025 and stick to the Mental Health Policy 2015-2030.

The Mental Health Taskforce has pointed out Kenyans’ concerns that the setting of our hospitals by itself scares away mentally ill people.

The Ministry of Health should train it’s personnel on attending to mentally ill patients with dignity, since health care is the right of every citizen.

More resources and psychiatric unit should be acquired.

Knowledge and the right attitude on the part of citizens and the health personnel will end stigmatization and allow for better health-care.

Mental Health Awareness campaigns should be regularly conducted by both governmental and non-governmental bodies.

Maximal use of the periods set would fulfill this purpose: May, which is the International Mental Health Awareness month and October 10, the World Mental Health Awareness Day.

Let’s all encourage those battling mental health disorders to visit medical facilities for treatment, support them and allow them to take their time to heal.

RELATED STORY: HEALTH: How to tackle clinical depression

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Mr. Makau holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Linguistics, Media & Communication from Moi University, Kenya. He is a Columnist and Editor with Scholar Media Africa, with a keen interest in Education, Health, Climate Change, and Literature. His contact:


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