Data Hub

Youths mission to end mental illness stigma


Mr Iregi Mwenja (left) CEO of Psychiatric Disability Organisation speaks to some of the young people who attended the mental health wellbeing awareness workshop at the Wildlife Club of Kenya Hall at Lake Nakuru National Park on April 18, 2021. PHOTO | FRANCIS MUREITHI | NMG


  • The youths under an initiative known as Pepea have suffered mental illness and come together to share their experiences, information and in so doing demystify mental health issues under the support of the Psychiatric Disability Organisation.
  • The youths believe they can "have a profound impact" on the management and healing of the disease.

Outside the scenic Wildlife Club of Kenya situated at the heartland of Lake Nakuru National Park, a group of about 20 youths are engaged in deep conversation occasionally taking notes on their smartphones.

Not even a herd of buffaloes grazing near the electric fence and chirping birds on top of the beautiful acacia trees creaking in the wind that forms a canopy to shield them from the scorching sun could distract their attention.

These are not local tourists on a game drive in the 188km square kilometre Park that was once home to world-famous Flamingo birds that have since migrated due to rising water levels at the nearby lake.

These are young people drawn from various counties including Kiambu, Kisumu, Nakuru, Nairobi, Nyandarua and Laikipia meeting with the overall objective of raising awareness of mental health issues.

The youths under an initiative known as Pepea have suffered mental illness and come together to share their experiences, information and in so doing demystify mental health issues under the support of the Psychiatric Disability Organisation.

Beacon of hope

"The youths are keen to be here because they also know that they have a responsibility to do everything they possibly can to curb the spread of mental illness. Everybody is in the same boat here," says Iregi Mwenja, founder and chief executive officer of Psychiatric Disability Organisation.

Mr Mwenja who grew up with undiagnosed Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD) says the young people are now a 'beacon of hope' to possibly millions of Kenyans whose mental illness is ignored and less understood by those with some awareness.

The youths believe they can "have a profound impact" on the management and healing of the disease.

"I take mental health concerns seriously because one of the biggest challenges is low awareness of mental disorders particularly, the symptoms. Mental illness is marred by myths and misconceptions including being a curse and witchcraft yet it is a disease that can be treated and managed if diagnosed at an early stage," says Margret Wangechi, 24, a Fourth Year Psychology Student at Moi University who is an ADHD survivor.

Mr Edwin Mburu, 35, is one of the mental health advocates and has experienced depression, anxiety, substance abuse and he has been recovering from alcoholism for the past five years.

"I got help and realised that people need to speak up on mental health issues as I have been there. The more people don't talk about it the more people with mental illness are stigmatised. When we keep quiet stigma wins and evidence has shown that whenever people with mental health raise their voices, and talk about the pertinent issues they are going through, people view them in a different light and this is what I want to change as a mental health advocate," says Mr Mburu who is also an accountant at the University of Nairobi.

"People should know that going through depression and anxiety, or any mental health condition doesn't disqualify you from achieving your life goals. It doesn't make you a lesser human being. It does not stop you from achieving your potential," says 27-year-old Benta Akinyi who was diagnosed with Bipolar in 2019, adding "by joining Pepea it has made me discover my potential and become a mental health advocate. I'm now confident enough to articulate issues to do with mental health. I want to tell other youths that they can go through this and still achieve their goals."

Heathcare gaps

Mr Mwenja says Kenyans should talk about mental health the way they talk about cancer or HIV/Aids, adding "lets us talk about it in all the public forums, that way we shall fight the stigma."

The Kenya Mental Health Policy 2015-2030 states that one in every four Kenyans suffers from mental ill-health in their lifetime. That translates to 12 million Kenyans who will need medical attention. There are, however many gaps in mental health infrastructure in the country.

Among the nearly 300 level 4 hospitals, mental health services are only provided in 29, representing only 0.7 per cent of the facilities. Psychiatric units are only available in 26 out of 47 counties. Patients seeking mental health care in the remaining 22 counties are forced to travel to Mathari National Teaching and Referral Hospital, the only national hospital for mental health.

Kenya has about 90 consultant psychiatrists and about 500 psychiatric nurses serving a population of about 50 million people.

The World Health Organisation's (WHO) 2017 report on the world mental health situation ranked Kenya fifth among African countries with the highest number of depression cases.

It showed that Kenya was among the 28 per cent of WHO member states that did not have a separate budget for mental health, and the government expenditure on mental health is about Sh300 million out of the total budget.

A Mental Health Taskforce formed by the government under the leadership of Dr Frank Njenga in 2019 recommended that mental illness should be prioritised as a public health and socioeconomic agenda.

The taskforce also recommended the establishment of a mental health commission and happiness, to advise, coordinate and continuously monitor the status and report on the annual National Happiness Index. The recommendation is yet to be implemented.

"Kenya mental health taskforce revealed that Kenya has a high burden of mental illness due to ill health, psychosocial disability, premature mortality with huge gaps in access to care, high levels of depression, suicidal behaviour, mental distress and substance use and therefore the government should prioritise the formation of this crucial commission," says Prof Benson Gakinya a lecturer at School of Medicine at Moi University.

He adds that the mental health commission and happiness should also be institutionalised in school, homes places of work to enable Kenyans to reflect on their lives particularly during these pandemic times when livelihoods have been upended.

Prof Gakinya blames the deteriorating mental health of young people on parents who have abdicated their responsibilities saying "young people are growing without any relationships with their parents and have no one to guide them or share and we have left everything to teachers who are busy."

"Today children are dumped in school and parents pick them at end of the year and this makes the children wonder who are their parents. That is the beginning of depression among children and that is why we have a new generation that has nothing to do with spirituality and when you have such a generation that believes in anything it is easy to fall on drug abuse," said Prof Gakinya.

The don adds that young people lack role models as people in leadership positions are displaying bad behaviours by fighting in assemblies and shouting obscenities.

"We don't have mentorship programmes. Parents have left everything to not-for-profit organisations to do parental roles," notes Prof Gakinya.


Mr Mwenja believes the youth support groups can be "a beacon of hope and optimism", despite the rising cases of suicides and mental disorders among young people in Kenya.

"I think that when these youths go out in the public and spread the gospel of awareness, acceptance to the ignorant society they will also act as a beacon of hope and optimism in a society that I hope is soon coming to terms that mental illness is just a disease like any other and patients should not be stigmatised, abused or ridiculed," he says.

"I think that these youths will be a game-changer in the management of mental health in Kenya as they will have a great impact at a time when the country is facing a huge challenge in mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic which has made the situation even worse," he adds.

Nominated MCA at Nakuru County Assembly, Elizabeth Gichuki laments that mental health services at the counties are widely underfunded and devolved units do not have a separate budget for mental health.

"This has been a major impediment against the development of quality mental health services in the country. There should be equitable resource allocation for mental health services by increasing the budgetary allocation to mental health services to a minimum of the recommended WHO standards both at national and county level," said Ms Gichuki.

She said there is a need for collaboration with Public-private partnerships and voluntary private sector actors like the Psychiatric Disability Organisation with a view of adding value and enhancing the attainment of goals and objectives of fighting mental illness in Kenya.