Ideas & Debate

State should fight mental illness stigma on front line



  • As the World Health Organisation says, there is no health without mental health.
  • One of the common misconceptions is that mental health and mental illness are the same thing.

As the World Health Organisation says, there is no health without mental health. One of the common misconceptions is that mental health and mental illness are the same thing.

During the course a lifetime, not everyone will experience a mental illness, but everyone will struggle or have a challenge with their mental wellbeing just like we all have challenges with our physical wellbeing from time to time.

Let’s begin to focus on how we can improve our mental health on a day-to-day basis to avoid reaching a point where we could develop an illness that would require medical intervention through treatment or admission into a mental health hospital.

A mental illness is an illness that affects how we think, feel, behave, or interact with others. There are many different mental illnesses which have different symptoms that impact peoples’ lives in different ways.

We are all advised to do a mental health check-up to assess the state of our minds the same way we do dental, optical or body check-ups especially if you work in a high-pressure or stressful environment. The same applies to young children. Early medical diagnosis is crucial in supporting the recovery process and in ensuring your quality of life is not negatively affected.

Three recent media reports regarding the handling of persons who may have mental ill health have been unsettling. There appears to be perpetration of stigma in the three instances. This is the very reason why the mental health sub-sector has been neglected for eons and hence the wanting situation that we are currently in.

First, following the relatively high suicide rates recorded in central Kenya between April and June this year compared to the National data, police in Nyeri are investigating why, specifically men aged between 19 and 39 are at a high risk of taking their own lives in three out of the five Nyeri sub-counties.

It is common knowledge that suicide is one of the key symptoms of mental illness. The fact that the police are taking the lead in carrying out a study on mental ill health suggests that this medical symptom is being handled as a criminal issue.

Studies on the prevalence of other medical conditions and diseases like cancer, hypertension, and diabetes are carried out by qualified professionals in the relevant fields. So why would the police in this instance be assigned to carry out a study on behalf of qualified professionals in the field of mental health — psychiatrics, psychologists, and counsellors? It is highly probable that the study respondents will not cooperate with the police who, for no fault of their own, may not have the requisite skills and competences to conduct a mental illness-related study. So, the silence on account of stigma will dog the affected families and communities.

But worse, the opportunity to nip an impending mental illness or condition (due to trauma) on the affected families will be lost in the absence of a counsellor or psychotherapist during the said study.

Second, a gazette notice was issued, appointing a tribunal to look into the removal of a judge whose medical reports indicate that she may have mental health issues. Though the details of the incapacitation leading to the inability of the official to perform are not cited, it is curious as to whether this is the same treatment that is accorded persons in this profession who suffer from other chronic or terminal illnesses.

Given that mental health issues may be referring to mental illness that are diagnosable by medical doctors in this field and which are treatable and manageable through the related prescribed interventions that then facilitate recovery and rehabilitation to allow persons to continue living productively and with dignity, is this an avenue that could have been pursued over the tribunal that will seal the fate of the judge?

Is the option of adjusting the work and load schedule to fit this official’s performance capability against the backdrop of the mental health issues an option or is the undisclosed Illness a condemnation of her professional life?

Third, are the struggles of renowned Kenya boxer Conjestina Achieng'. From the last information that was in the public domain indications were that a psychiatrist assessment declared that Ms Achieng has a mental illness thereby raising our concern on the loud silence from the Sports and Health dockets. Hasn't this case been on their radar bearing in mind who Ms Achieng’ is to Kenya?

Post her diagnosis, was she assigned to a qualified community health worker in her residential area to ensure that she and her care givers receive the necessary medical and social support?

Do the two mentioned dockets monitor Ms Acheing’ and other sports people who are known to be struggling with mental health issues?

The manner in which these two dockets handle Ms Achieng’s mental health predicaments will bear testimony on the government’s commitment to not only fully implementing the recommendations of the 2018 National Mental Health Task Force Report but also in ensuring that every Kenyan enjoys the constitutional right to health — there is no health without mental health .

Manyara is Head of Advocacy, KIMBILIO-Sikia Limited. [email protected] Machira is Global Wellness Ambassador, Kenya. [email protected]