Kenya: State on the Spot Over Mental Health Crisis

16 October 2019

Concern is growing over the startling spike in suicides, especially among teens.

A few weeks before a 14-year-old girl killed herself in Bomet County, the Nation team had accompanied a counsellor to her aunt's home in Kikuyu, Kiambu.

She had been invited to talk to her 13-year-old niece, who her parents said was "acting weird" -- cutting everyone off, locking herself in her room and even failing to shower and eat for days. The teen was suicidal and could be struggling with a mental illness, the counsellor said.

SUICIDE

A World Health Organisation (WHO) report says most people who contemplate suicide could be suffering from mental health problems

The counsellor decided it was in the teenager's best interest to take her for more counselling and medical attention if the need arose.

This is not an isolated case. A 2017 WHO report ranked Kenya at number six in Africa on depression levels. The report estimated that 4.4 per cent of Kenya's population -- 1,952,981 people -- suffered from depression in 2015. More than half of those who commit suicide are under the age of 45, the report said.

Another report published in Business Daily last year said the number of suicides reported in Kenya rose by 58 per cent between 2008 and 2017.

The government is on the spot for failing to respond proactively to the mental health crisis. In June this year, US-based Kenyan lawyer professor Makau Mutua called for open discussions about the status of mental illness in Kenya.

UNTREATED

WHO reported that 10-20 per cent of children and adolescents suffer from mental illnesses globally. The agency estimated that half of these cases begin at the age of 14. But most of these cases go undetected and untreated.

As for Kenya, just how much data on adolescents' mental health do we have?

Sadly, according to Fredrick Wekesah, an epidemiologist and researcher at the African Population and Research, Kenya does not have empirical data on child and adolescent mental illnesses for the five major conditions -- major depressive disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, general anxiety and social phobias, conduct disorders and post-traumatic stress disorder.

This is because, in Kenya, and in most middle-income countries, symptoms of mental health illnesses are associated with spiritual or behavioural issues.

Lack of such crucial data has made it difficult for the government to create interventions to deal with ailing adolescents.

The government in 2015 launched the Kenya Mental Health Policy. It provides a generic policy framework that is being adopted by local research organisations to collect empirical data on mental health.

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