In Kenya, one in four patients at a primary health facility suffers from a mental illness.
Of late, a number of incidents of young people abruptly ending their lives have been reported. Just a week ago, a young man from Nyandarua, Gerald Mwangi, allegedly ended his life less than 24 hours after posting a suicide note on his Facebook wall.
While in the 1990s we rarely heard of such cases in Kenya, it is a worrying trend that this is likely to escalate if not addressed soon enough.
Most of the victims had mental disorder, which the World Health Organisation (WHO) describes as characterised by a combination of abnormal thoughts, perceptions, emotions, behaviour and relationships with others.
It manifests in various ways — such as depression, bipolar affective disorder, schizophrenia and other intellectual disabilities and developmental disorders, including autism.
Mental disorder is increasingly a big issue in developing countries. In Kenya, one in four patients at a primary health facility suffers from a mental illness.
The prevalence is attributed to poverty, drug and alcohol abuse, stress and other factors. Unfortunately, most mental disorder patients do not get the treatment and care that they need.
Depression is common among the youth as most of them feel that they are not supported by people around them.
It is characterised by sadness, loss of interest or pleasure, feelings of guilt or low self-worth, disturbed sleep or appetite, tiredness and poor concentration. Depression can be on and off and, when most severe, could lead to suicide.
Adolescents, specifically, are a vulnerable lot and are at a stage where they are trying to discover themselves. They experiment with a number of things and need assurances. At times, parents and guardians are too busy to see the tell-tale signs until it is too late.
Mental health patients should not be discriminated against but, instead, offered psychosocial support.
In Kenya, mental healthcare is predominantly State-funded but is extremely limited in terms of infrastructure, manpower and finances.
The country has only 62 psychiatrists registered with the Kenya Medical Practitioners and Dentists Board and 427 trained nurses in about 16 hospitals that offer the services.
The ‘Kenya Mental Health Policy 2015-2030’ provides for a framework on interventions for securing mental health systems reforms in Kenya.
This is in line with the Constitution, Vision 2030, the Kenya Health Policy (2014-2030) and global commitments.
Its goal is attainment of the highest standard of mental health.
There are effective strategies for preventing mental disorders. Besides medicines that help to stabilise the mood are centres that offer psychosocial support.
In Kenya, the best-known specialised mental health public facility is Mathari Teaching and Referral Hospital, in Nairobi.
The government needs to set up more public mental health centres outside the city, staffed with skilled personnel.
The Ministry of Health must also implement the policy and address the systemic challenges and emerging trends and mitigate the burden.
We must acknowledge the existence of mental disorders and address them before we lose more lives. More importantly, mental disorder should be given preference like other illnesses.
Ms Mangwana is a communications specialist. firstname.lastname@example.org.