Need to invest more and increase public awareness in mental health

Thursday October 12 2017

World Mental Health Day

Members of the public receive free wellness tests during the World Mental Health Day at Othaya Approved School stadium in Nyeri on October 10, 2017. Statistics show almost 4 million Kenyans suffer from mental related illness. PHOTO | JOSEPH KANYI | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

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Treatment for mental, neurological and substance use disorders is an uphill task, especially in countries where resource allocation for mental health is low, pushing the number of mental health cases up.

Worsening the situation is the country’s shortage of specialists.

Currently, the country operates with 88 psychiatrists and 427 nurses, who handle different illnesses in the 14 mental health facilities.

Prof Lukoye Atwoli, the dean of the School of Medicine and an associate professor of psychiatry at the Moi University, says that with the cases rising, there is a need for the country to invest more in mental health.


“Countries need to understand that the mental health of our population will determine how prosperous we become,” he explained.

Mental disorders are common. You may have a friend, colleague or relative with a mental disorder, or perhaps you have experienced one yourself at some point.

Such disorders include depression, anxiety, bipolar, attention deficit hyperactivity, among others.

Some people who develop a mental illness may recover completely; others may have repeated episodes of illness with relatively stable periods in between.


Still others live with symptoms of mental illness every day. They can be moderate or serious and can cause severe disability.

In Kenya, nearly four million people suffer from a mental disorder.

Mental health experts also estimate that at least one in every four people will suffer from at least one form of mental illness at one point in their lives.

A further 20 to 40 per cent of Kenyans seeking out-patient services in hospitals have one or more mental disorders.


This situation, Prof Atwoli warns, may worsen by 2030 due to neglect of the sector.

“We are already seeing increased cases of suicide in the country, which is often caused by mental illness,” added Prof Atwoli.

Whereas schizophrenia affects at least one per cent of the population, depression, anxiety disorders, substance abuse and bipolar moods are more common in the Kenyan set-up, he says.

“Depression and anxiety disorder can be easily ignored because they are not as dramatic as conditions like schizophrenia, which is a chronic and severe mental disorder,” noted Dr Chitayi Murabula, a psychiatrist, who added that some people do not see the disease as treatable, as they can easily be confused for stress.


The world celebrated its 25th World Mental Health Day on Tuesday,  but Prof Atwoli says there is a need to increase public awareness on mental health issues.

In its theme this year, the World Federation of Mental Health calls for improved mental wellness at the workplace.

“The increase in urbanisation is creating an individualistic society which is disconnected from its social support system. This greatly predisposes people to mental illness,” says Prof Atwoli.

A case in point is Uasin Gishu County, where a recent report showed that up to 16 per cent of the population reported attempted suicide in the past one year.


Prof Atwoli, who is also a psychiatrist,  says almost half of the people who go to hospital for any reason whatsoever have a mental disorder.

But what happens in the brain to cause a mental disorder?

Although the exact cause of most mental illnesses is not known, research indicates that mental disorders are brain disorders caused by a combination of biological, psychological and environmental factors.

“To put it simply, mental disorders are a product of disruption in the communication of the nerves of the brains called neurotransmitters. If they do not function well, then the disorder occurs,” explains Prof Atwoli.

Whereas biology plays a role in determining who gets a mental disorder and who does not, Prof Atwoli adds that socialisation and the environment will affect the manifestation and severity of the illness.