Is the economy affecting Kenyans’ mental state?


The economy seems to be affecting Kenyans’ mental state. PHOTO | SHUTTERSTOCK

It has been known for many years that adverse economic times negatively impact the mental states of people. That said, this impact is neither simple nor linear as one might expect. In other words, it is not true that all poor people have mental disorders, and similarly not all rich people are free of mental disorders.

In a similar vein, it is not true that poor countries have higher levels of mental disorders than rich countries. The truth is that multiple factors affect mental health, and the performance of the economy is just one such factor.

It is perhaps better to consider first, what the economic hardships are doing to the people, before looking at the specifics of their mental health. A recent study by a respected polling organisation found that many Kenyans are experiencing psychological stress arising from the hardships of the economy. If that is true, as seems to be the case, then, the harsh economy joins other factors that are known to be stressors, and which predispose to the development of various mental disorders.

For example, people stressed by the illness of a loved one or people who are recently bereaved and indeed persons who are under whatever stressful conditions are more prone to mental disorders than the general population.

On the face of it therefore, the answer to your question is yes, in the sense that economic stress is like any other and we would expect that there will be a general increase in some mental disorders.

Along this line of reasoning, one finds that suicide rates are known to have gone up during extreme financial difficulties, such as the 2008 global financial crisis. It was estimated that thousands of suicides that took place are a direct result of the crisis. It was estimated that there were an additional 30-40,000 attempted suicides during the three years of the recession.

If one accepts the fact that for every completed or attempted suicides, there are many more persons with mental health needs, then once again, your question must be answered in the affirmative.

Sadly however, this is but the simple answer because different countries were affected by the crisis to different extents, and the different groups of people reacted in different ways. Suicides among those working in the financial markets in Japan, for example, were reported to be high as were those in the US.

Gender differences in mental health were also evident with women being more affected than men, perhaps because of their special roles as managers of domestic finances. Additionally, and to underscore the long-term physical and mental health consequences of the hard economic times, Iceland for example reported an increase in rates of low birth weight, a factor that predisposes in the long-term to poor school performance as well as poorer mental health outcomes.

Additionally, more people were reported to be using alcohol and other substances in harmful ways and this was in some instances associated with the low employment opportunities caused by the harsh economic times.

In a way like what we saw during the Covid-19 pandemic, instances of domestic violence were on the rise and the mental health consequences were severe. The Mental Health Taskforce of 2020 in Kenya confirmed the high prevalence of mental disorders in the country, as well as the fact that Kenya invests a relatively small proportion of its resources to mental health.

During hard economic times, budgetary provision for mental health is likely to diminish even further and sadly, a bad situation is likely to get worse.

A recent study in Kisumu by Kenyan and American psychiatrists has revealed that appropriate treatment of depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has dramatic effects on economic performance, by reducing the number of days people take off due to illness, but more significantly, that after treatment, the people are more productive, and contribute to both GDP as well as taxation. The economic rationale for treating depression is sound.

Tragically, whichever way you look at it, the news for those with mental health needs all over the world is likely to get worse at a time of a recession. Kenya in this respect is no exception and it would be in order to keep the mental health agenda on the front burner, even as we all navigate the challenges of this economy.

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