Wellness & Fitness

What is causing this sudden increase in mental illnesses?


There are very many factors that influence what outcome one gets in cases of depression. PHOTO | POOL

Everybody I know seems to have a friend or relative who has a mental health condition. What is causing this sudden increase?

The Kenya Psychiatric Association is meeting in Kisumu under the theme, 'social determinants of mental disorders'. The experts are as concerned as you are by what seems to be a sudden increase in mental disorders.

Concerned by the same apparent trend, the government commissioned a Mental Health Taskforce to examine this question a few years ago and its report was handed over on July 7, 2020.

I would like to recommend this report to you as it will shed light on some of your concerns/observations. Go to the MOH website and search for the report.  Several findings and recommendations are relevant to your question.

Firstly, Kenyans are, the carriers of a heavy societal burden occasioned by mental disorders. Throughout the country, citizens, like you had observed that many in their midst had one or other mental health condition including, drug abuse, psychosis, anxiety and many others too numerous to describe.

The second issue Kenyans told the Taskforce was that there were high levels of stigma regarding mental health. Some thought that the conditions were due to witchcraft, others to demon possession, while still others said that poverty and bad genes were to blame. Each group seemed to lay emphasis on a different cause for these conditions.

The third thing that Kenyans were acutely aware of was the fact that investment in mental health was extremely low compared to the burden of these disorders.

That it was the wananchi who demonstrated awareness of this low investment came as a pleasant surprise to members of the Taskforce.

Equally surprising, and in some ways impressive, was the active participation of faith-based organisations in the proceedings. They not only confirmed awareness of the heavy burden of disease, but they also wanted some form of training from the government on how to recognise common mental disorders, among their members. All in all, Kenyans demonstrated much knowledge about mental health.

The numbers also speak in support of your observations. In a survey of a rural population among Kenyans some years ago, 11 percent of Kenyans who had not gone to the hospital to complain of any illness were found to have some form of mental disorder, of which they were mostly unaware of.

Extrapolating this to the rest of the country. This means that approximately one in 10 of all Kenyans have what you seem to have become aware of, a mental health need!

Other Kenyan scientists have shown that up to 30 percent of all Kenyans who visit primary healthcare facilities such as dispensaries and health centres do so because they have symptoms consistent with a diagnosis of a common mental disorder.

The fact that the conditions are not diagnosed is not evidence of their absence but rather evidence of our ignorance of these conditions. Sadly, this lack of knowledge translates to expensive and uncalled-for investigations and treatments.

Happily, another group has shown that short training programmes for primary care workers have the capacity to change their knowledge and methods of practice.

Coming back to the body of your question, on the seeming increase of mental disorders, it is true that two things have happened in Kenya in the last decade or so, and both are trends in the right direction.

The first is the increased awareness of the challenges posed by mental disorders. Whether one goes to Church or other place of worship, more and more men of God seem to agree with experts that we will ignore mental health at our peril. Many Churches now ask mental health experts to talk to their congregants.

Like it or not social media has been instrumental in discussing mental health issues of all sorts, including the high suicide rates among men, increasing cases of Bipolar Mood Disorders and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), as well as drug and substance use disorders.

For its part, the government has ensured the training of many specialists and today, most counties have at least one psychologist and psychiatrist.

This means that more and more hitherto undiagnosed conditions are unraveled and given a name perhaps giving rise to the impression that more new cases now exist.

In this regard, it is the fact that more accurate diagnoses are made that might lead to your observations. That said, it is also true that poverty together with social inequities are other determinants of mental disorders.

Yours is not only a concern that is in the minds of many in Kenya, it is also a current and topical subject in the minds of many.

Send your mental health concerns to [email protected]