Kenyan writer Ted Malanda once quipped, “I can’t wrap my mind around the fact that depression is an illness… In fact, it is such a non-issue that African languages never bothered to create a word for it.”
These words capture the general attitude by Kenyans, held as much by officials as by ordinary people, towards an epidemic of mental illness in the country. Health experts have estimated that a fourth of the Kenya’s population suffers from a range of mental diseases, including schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, bipolar disorder, depression and severe anxiety.
Kenya has only about 80 psychiatrists and 30 clinical psychologists, fewer than its 500 psychiatric nurses, of which only 250 work in mental health. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), yet the country spends only about 0.05% of its health budget on mental health. About 70% of mental health facilities in the country are located in the capital, Nairobi.
The widely held view in Kenya that mentally ill patients brought the disease upon themselves by using illicit drugs may be one reason the government does not prioritize mental health. Experts have also pointed to a tendency to view acute mental health diseases as supernatural afflictions that can be cured only through spiritual or traditional medicinal interventions. Families of the mentally ill often turn for a cure to these interventions, or to “prayer camps” – retreats where the sick person is often chained to trees and prayed for.
Over the past couple of years though, a significant number of Kenyans have gradually begun to understand the much-tabooed subject of mental health. Some celebrities have also become ambassadors of the topic and have taken to the media to share their personal journeys with problems like anxiety and depression. However, this still isn’t enough to stem the rising cases of suicide related deaths caused by mental health issues.
As a society it is imperative that we acknowledge the existence of mental health so that we may begin our journey towards remedying those in need. Despite age, fame, house, family, or surroundings; anyone can experience an imbalance of the mind leading to thoughts that don’t seem to make sense but are overpowering enough to force you to take your own life.
Perhaps the biggest problem as demonstrated by the many cases of suicide is that people with seemingly normal and healthy lives suffer deep within. We live in communities and it is up to us to be aware of those in our surroundings. A person with depression might not always cry out for help, it is the subtle change in behavior that hints towards mental troubles. By being more alert we can do our part in ensuring suicide rates fall as low as possible.
It is our job to help those who don’t even ask for help.