Many young people in teenage and early years of adulthood go through many stressful experiences as they manoeuvre phases of life.
The stress can arise from bullying, joblessness, abusive relationships and pressures to perform well in academics or attain the social status of peers deemed successful.
These feelings of stress and anxiety —over long periods — make them susceptible to mental illness, which, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO) is increasingly affecting young people.
In line with these concerns, the theme of this year’s World Mental Health Day (celebrated on October 10) is ‘Young People and Mental Health in a Changing World’.
Locally, the Ministry of Health (MoH) is also grappling with the high number of young people struggling with mental health problems caused by societal challenges such as poverty and political strife.
Government statistics show that up to 25 per cent of sick people in outpatient facilities and up to 40 per cent of those admitted in hospitals suffer from mental conditions.
Chitayi Murabula, a psychiatrist at Mathari National Hospital, noted that it is common to diagnose many young people with the condition since mental illness - such as depression or anxiety - generally starts during the teenage years and early twenties.
According to him, it is important for the country to roll out programmes or initiatives that create awareness on mental health so as to enable young people prevent or cope effectively with mental ailments when they arise.
"Life problems or challenges will always be there. What is important is acquiring the necessary skills that enable us to deal with the problems as they come."
Depression is the most common type of mental illness among young people. The disease is characterised by persistent sadness and loss of interest in activities that affected individuals once enjoyed.
It is also accompanied by the inability to carry out daily activities, loss of energy, sleep challenges, reduced concentration, feelings of worthlessness, indecisiveness, restlessness, hopelessness, guilt and thoughts of self harm or suicide.
Dr Murabula notes that young people going through stressful experiences should be encouraged to share their problems with people they trust as this can help resolve the challenge, hence allaying depression.
Other important stress management techniques include having a positive mindset, making time for hobbies or interests, getting enough sleep, accepting that certain things are beyond your control, engaging in regular physical exercise, spending enough time with friends or those whose company you enjoy, learning to say No to requests that would create excessive stress in your life and effective time management.
“Tobacco use, alcoholism and drug abuse should also be discouraged as they increase the vulnerability of young people to mental illness,” said Susan Njoroge, an addictions and family psychologist.
“Don’t make a habit of consuming these substances thinking that they will make you forget about your problems. This is just an illusion. Getting drunk or high just makes things worse. Instead you should seek medical help for the stress.”
Despite its many benefits, the WHO has raised the alarm over the incidence of mental illness linked to the expanding use of online technologies, especially social media among young people.
These sites put them under so much pressure to 'fit in' and attain the 'perfect' lives portrayed online by their friends. The pressure and feelings of worthlessness that arise when they fail to measure up, eventually leads to mental illness.
For those already suffering from depression, Dr Murabula notes that treatment alongside psychological counselling sessions (offering stress management skills) can help with speedy recovery and return to normal life.
"The important thing is to stick to the treatment plan and embrace recommended stress coping mechanisms."
Despite mental illness being a major problem in the country, he states that access to mental health services — be it psychological counselling or treatment drugs — is a challenge to many affected Kenyans.
Most psychiatrists, clinical psychologists and even medical social workers are few and concentrated in urban centres and within major hospitals.
To address this human resource gap, MoH has begun training low cadre health workers from primary healthcare facilities on the effective diagnosis and management of the condition.
“My appeal to counties is that they should open up psychiatric units in their existing hospitals. The model of pure mental health institutions is now obsolete. We would like mental services to be fully integrated with other services."
Due to the increasing number of young people succumbing to mental illness as a result of substance abuse (alcohol, tobacco, heroin or bhang), Dr Murabula notes that adequate rehabilitation facilities are required to help affected people overcome the addiction and become productive in the society.
He states that enhanced awareness on mental illness can also help people to understand that it is a disease like any other which can be treated effectively.
"So there's no need of stigmatising those with the condition. Instead, the society should offer them our support”.