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Health experts warn of mental illness crisis

Wednesday May 18 2016

Health CS Cleopa Mailu with WHO Country Representative Custodia Mandhate during the launch of the mental health policy on May 17, 2016 at the Hilton Hotel in Nairobi. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP

Health CS Cleopa Mailu with WHO Country Representative Custodia Mandhate during the launch of the mental health policy on May 17, 2016 at the Hilton Hotel in Nairobi. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA | NATION MEDIA GROUP 

ELIZABETH MERAB
By ELIZABETH MERAB
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At least one in every four Kenyans will suffer from mental illness at one point in their lives, health experts have warned. That is 11.5 million people.

Another 20 to 40 per cent of those seeking outpatient services in hospitals have one or more mental disorders, they said on Tuesday.

Yet the country has only 88 psychiatrists and 427 nurses qualified to handle the illnesses in the 14 mental health hospitals, which have a bed capacity of between 15 and 25.

Speaking while launching the country’s first mental health policy on Tuesday, the specialists called on the government to train more experts and increase the number of hospitals dedicated to the illnesses.

The deputy head of the mental health unit, Dr Catherine Syengo, said many patients flocked to the well-known Mathare hospital, leaving out Moi Teaching and Referral and the other 12 hospitals.

Other than Mathare, which has a bed capacity of 700, Moi offers inpatient services and can accommodate 70 patients.

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The two hospitals are also training and research in psychiatry and mental health.

“There are other facilities in 14 counties that offer the services but people rarely know about them,” said Dr Syengo, adding that many Kenyans viewed mental illness as a spiritual problem rather than a medical one. That is why they turn to religious leaders or traditional healers for treatment, she said.

WHO AGREEMENT

“That is why even insurance companies do not cover these illness yet they require medical attention like any other,” she said at the Hilton Hotel, Nairobi.

According to the Health ministry, the Mental Health Policy 2015-2030 is meant to guide the mental health services, which has over the years been neglected.

The policy is a result of a 1988 agreement by World Health Organisation member states.

Mental health specialists and hospitals have been using guidelines from the law on mental health and the ministry.

The new policy is, however, designed to streamline mental health laws and help in drafting more guidelines to outline the kind of care patients should receive.

“We have not been in a vacuum but the policy was necessary to guide how laws are enacted as well as identifying gaps in the sector,” Health Cabinet Secretary Cleopa Mailu explained.

He added: “With this policy, we intend to attain high standards of care for these patients.”

The policy recommends that governments hire more mental health specialists and community health workers.

Globally, an estimated 450 million people have a mental disorder, with almost three-quarters living in middle-and low-income countries.

Mental disorders include those affecting mood, thinking and behaviour.

They account for 13 per cent of the global disease burden, a figure the WHO projects will rise to 15 per cent by 2030.