How language use influences mental health in Kenya

mental health

Our cultures are unique, and they help us to identify with each other or with particular groups.

This is based on our shared understanding, language, art, customs, or world views. In Kenya, we have 43 ethnic groups (of which 13 are major groups) which all speak different languages, inhabit diverse ecological zones, and differ significantly in cultural practices.

Our culture, beliefs, values, and languages all affect how we perceive and experience health including mental health. Cultural differences can influence what treatments, coping mechanisms and supports work for us.

For many decades, anthropologists have shown that cultures including people’s history, economies, social realities, and politics are important in providing meanings to health or illnesses.

For instance, the perceptions that people have towards the cause of their illnesses, can vary across cultures. In Kenya, some cultures ascribe the onset of disease to curses, witchcraft or the “evil eye,” (from a neighbour or a relation), black magic or the breaking of taboos. Others, talk about the “Jini” (evil spirits) to be underlying their poor health or suffering.

Language is linked to culture. We use language not only as a tool for communication, but also as a symbolic system that helps us to create and shape our social realities, perceptions, or identities.

The language we speak to ourselves, or to others may trigger our brains to respond in specific ways. On the one hand, people may feel emotionally uplifted when appropriate language is used. Phrases such as, “Najivunia kuwa Mkenya” loosely translated as “I am proud to be a Kenyan” can create a positive vibe, integration and social cohesion.

However, in Kenya, it is common to see people using inappropriate language in public spaces or in some sectors. For example, in the health sector, mental health is one area that is not well understood.

Use of inappropriate words or language to label people suffering from mental disorders is common.

Stigmatising words such as “mwendawazimu” “chizi”, loosely translated as “mad” “crazy” are often used to describe people with mental disorders. Sometimes, Swahili verbs such as “kujinyonga” “Kujiua” loosely translated as “committed suicide” seem to relegate blame to individuals who die by suicide.

It is common to observe or hear Kenyans using inappropriate language or words during the electioneering period.

For the past three decades, ethno-political hostilities in Kenya are influenced by political elite who manipulate and incite long-held divisions along ethnic lines, economic imperialism, and cultural practices that are deep-rooted and radicalised.

Using inappropriate words, including hate speech not only stigmatises and creates unrealistic assumptions about other communities. Further, stigma can lead to low self esteem or can make individuals with mental disorders to hide their symptoms and not seek treatment until their issues becomes severe.

On this World Day of Cultural Diversity, let us embrace cultural relativism by respecting other people’s cultures and values.