In July 2020, the Mental Health Task Force set up by the government sought to declare mental illness a national emergency. Findings showed 1 in every 10 Kenyans suffered from common mental health conditions, with depression and anxiety as the most prevalent disorders.
Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic, the mental health crisis has worsened largely due to coinciding socio-economic determinants. Unemployment has emerged as the lead cause of anti-social personality disorders among men aged 19-29, who also exhibit increased rates of substance abuse.
Meanwhile the rate of anxiety and depressive disorders among women is also on the rise alongside increased cases of domestic and gender-based violence. And other known environmental, psychological, and biological factors that aggravate mental health conditions are still prevalent and undiagnosed among large numbers of the population.
Teenagers and young adults, using new digital technologies are exposed to cyber bullying, a form of harassment that was unheard of as recently as 20 years ago. The pressures imposed by social media mean many of us are grappling with anxiety, depression, loneliness, self-absorption and isolation knowingly or unknowingly.
Predictably, the crisis is currently overshadowed by political and social events in the country. Putting mental health on the back burner of the citizen welfare means an increase in reported violent crimes, suicides, gender-based and sexual violence with no systematic or state level response to address the underlying causes.
The lack of awareness and stigma associated with mental illness means larger incidences of undiagnosed, normalised conditions are symptomatic but untreated. This impacts the prioritisation of mental health services. If we don’t think people need them, we don’t provide them, even though the evidence is all around us.
Despite the ongoing global conversations on the matter, with campaigns being led by everyone from the royal family to the most notable pop culture icons, we are still largely silent and reliant on cultural norms, dogma and traditional treatment approaches.
The WHO has sought to make mental health care part of the UHC Healthcare for All agenda. However, in countries like Kenya where the push for its adaptation has been slow and flawed, psychiatric and counseling services are still largely overlooked aspects of medical treatment.
National and most private insurance plans do not cover counseling services and even less psychiatric care. Certified psychiatrists, counselors and psychologists are expensive to lower-income households and we lack information on the packages covered under NHIF schemes and universal health care packages.
Despite all this, more individuals are taking up the cause of creating safe spaces while highlighting their plights. These mental health champions have improved knowledge and attitudes toward mental health in their spheres of influence.
The media is taking an active role in disseminating messages that promote mental health care. The private sector, NGOs CSOs, local leaders and community health leaders have come together more in recent times to advocate the rights of people with mental disorders and to counter the negative impact of stigma and discrimination.
The government has published the Kenya Mental Health Policy 2015-2030 which provides a framework for interventions that address the burden of mental health problems and disorders in the country. Its full implementation would see higher levels of awareness and access to care.
Alex Cynthia Nyabola, Development communications professional and emerging mental health advocate