Why Kenyans need to understand mental illness

Friday, March 31st, 2023 01:00 | By
Mental health
Human brain used for illustration. PHOTO/Internet

Kenyans continue to wake up almost daily to many shocking incidences ranging from people committing suicide and others murdering their loved ones. Although not all these cases are attributed to depression and other mental health-related disorders, quite a number have been confirmed to result from this.

Considered a key determinant of overall health and socio-economic development, mental health is a massive area of concern across the world. Kenya was recently ranked 4th in Africa with 1.9 million people with mental illness. Depression is the most common mental illness reported.

According to the Kenya Mental Health Policy (2015-2030), mental disorders continue to rise rapidly. Government statistics reveal that one in every four Kenyans has suffered from a mental illness at one point in their lives.

Mental health is a crucial determinant of the overall health and socioeconomic development of a country. It influences individual and community outcomes such as lifestyle and education attainment. Without taking mental health as a priority the government puts at risk Kenya’s quality of life.

The recently published Kenya National Bureau of Statistics showed that more men than women have suffered from mental illnesses. Sadly, the report did not reveal causes of the illnesses.  However, it is expected to form the basis for the government to take actions that address gender-specific issues in society.

Few people with mental problems receive any treatment, according to global health surveys conducted in low and middle-income countries. Research shows stigma still plays a huge role in our reception to mental health and, thus, those suffering will continue to suffer in silence.

The eruption of social media channels has given mental illness exposure and allowed the public to have conversations about mental wellness. Despite this, according to research by Basic Needs Kenya, there is still concern about how mental illnesses are portrayed on social media. Our colloquial language and other simplified words such as ‘insane’ and ‘mad’ have had profound implications in stigmatising mentally ill Kenyans and continue to push the wrong narrative.

This prevalence indicates that mental health is an erupting public health concern that not only requires the attention of policy makers but agenda setters within society. Research done is an evidence base that policy and health initiatives can begin to change the fate of Kenyans. Observed age and sex differences in different reports provide the government with an opportunity for more targeted strategies.

From school-based programmes that focus on developing depression management strategies for students to easy and accessible mental wellness facilities. Improving our community’s knowledge of mental health issues will play a big role in eradicating stigma associated with seeking mental help.

Media reporting can also have a huge influence on public attitudes towards mental health given that the topic is already entrenched with stigma and misunderstanding. Fair and accurate journalism is essential. Sensationalist journalism around mental health fuels fear and mistrust, increasing isolation and inhibiting recovery whilst positive stories about mental health can encourage somebody who is struggling with their mental health to talk to someone they trust and seek help.

As with many diseases, mental illness is severe in some cases and mild in others, and is not always obvious. Recognise that the terms “mental illness” and “mental health disorder” cover a wide range of conditions, and, whenever possible, the specific diagnosis for an individual should be used rather than the blanket term.

— The writer, Rosemary Gathara, is the Executive Director of Basic Needs Kenya, an NGO that intervenes in mental health

More on Opinion