Poor parenting and a disconnect between adults and teenagers are pushing students to commit suicide or run away from home, psychologists and education experts have warned.
They say the unavailability of parents has led to the increase in truancy among teens, sometimes with deadly consequences.
The experts say truancy is often a pointer to depression and should be taken seriously. “We are living at a time when children are left to fend for themselves emotionally. Parents are too busy trying to make ends meet while teachers are overwhelmed by the need to post good results for the school. Children have nobody to turn to so they feel lost, even at home,” said Ms Margaret Lesuda, Central regional director of education.
Over the past year, two teenage suicides have been reported and over a dozen students have disappeared in central region. Notably, the disappearances and suicides have occurred during school terms.
A study by Saturday Nation shows that most of the teenagers were either afraid of going home due to disciplinary issues or did not want to be in school for unspecified reasons.
On April 1, students of Chinga Boys’ School in Nyeri County went to bed a distressed lot after a Form Four student hanged himself in the dormitory.
A sombre mood engulfed the institution following the death of the student they described as disciplined and jovial. He left no suicide note.
Even more puzzling is why the boy chose to take his life hours before they went home for April holidays, a time when students are normally thrilled to go home.
At the same school, a Form Three student went missing on February 15, a day before they headed home for mid-term break.
George Gitau Ikumi went missing after allegedly sneaking out of school and five months later, his whereabouts remain unknown.
The 17-year-old is believed to have left the school between 6pm and 7pm on February 15, as some students say they saw him during supper time but he did not show up in class later for a routine roll call.
His mother, Ms Hellen Gitau, said George was a reserved person. Hence, his nature could be mistaken for hostility.
George had earlier been suspended from school for sneaking out through the fence. “He barely talks to people. He does not even join in conversations, even at home. What he does is laugh at jokes,” she said.
According to his parents, Gitau may have feared the consequences of his behaviour, making him choose to run away.
Cornelius Macharia Wangombe, a student at Othaya Boys High School, went missing on March 30.
Some students said they had a confrontation with him over Sh4,150 he was keeping for them. He then excused himself, left and they never saw him again.
His father, Mr Solomon Wang’ombe, said Cornelius is reserved and sensitive, adding that this was his first disciplinary case.
The Form Three student sneaked into their home to change his school uniform and then disappeared. But he turned himself in to Nakuru police after a week.
Allan Gichuki Njogu, a student at Kirogo Boys Secondary school in Murang’a, also went missing on May 2.
He was supposed to report to school that day for the second term but disappeared from home early that morning. He was found two days later in Karatina town.
According to his mother, Gichuki did not want to return to that school.
Benson Kuria Wanderi, a student at Mary Immaculate Complex Boys Boarding School in Kagio, Kirinyaga County, went missing from school on May 13.
He was found two weeks later in Nairobi after he called his mother asking for some money so that he could go to his aunt’s house after he fell sick.
Kuria had requested his parents to transfer him from his current school.
Psychologists say when teenagers are afraid of being punished at home or lack someone to listen to them, they can end up running away to avoid dealing with the situation.
“Children nowadays are exposed to so much information. If they feel uncomfortable in a particular environment and lack someone to open up to, they opt to get out of that place entirely.
"It is unfortunate that parenting has changed: parents are not available to listen to what goes on in their children's lives,” said Ms Mercy Joel, a psychology lecturer at Outspan Medical College.
Earlier this year, the National Parents Association accused principals of neglecting their duties of taking care and attending to students’ needs.
However, Ms Lesuda says parents have a bigger role to play as the primary guardians. “Teachers cannot give full attention to individual students to know their issues. Actually, most students are affected more by what is happening at home,” Ms Lesuda said.
Additionally, pressure to perform academically is a contributing factor. “We have turned children into robots... Parents want them to achieve what they could not achieve during their time and teachers want to maintain a high score for the school. Of course the child will feel the pressure,” Ms Lesuda added.
It is this pressure that is pushing students to run away. “They are afraid of either being punished or disappointing their parents,” Ms Joel added.