This past week we have spent time going around the country listening to Kenyans speaking about their mental health.
It has been a humbling and gratifying experience for members of the National Taskforce on Mental Health formed in response to the presidential declaration on suicide, depression and substance abuse, among other serious mental illnesses.
People from all over the country have attended the public hearings and made very far-reaching proposals on what needs to be done to improve the mental health of Kenyans.
All of them are in agreement that the country faces a mental health crisis, and that urgent action needs to be taken to address this.
It would surprise many observers that the average citizen on the street has high-level expert knowledge on mental health, and many are able to identify the risks that would tip them over.
Many even know what needs to be done to improve their mental health, and only suffer from a shortage of resources to achieve this.
The task force will continue the public hearings this coming week, and will eventually retreat to complete the report in the first half of February.
The expectation is that the report will comprehensively address the current mental health status in the country, identifying problems and formulating solutions that will systematically deal with them.
One may wonder why these actions are taking place at this point.
The truth is that the mental health crisis has now become a political problem that has a serious bearing on the future of this country.
Indeed, this state was reached a long time ago in many other countries, and one will come across reports by similar task forces in higher-income countries.
Mental health is now a recurrent matter of discussion at such high-level settings as the United Nations and the World Health Organisation.
Indeed, when the Building Bridges Initiative (BBI) team traversed the country asking what Kenyans wanted changed in order to build a better country, many participants spent a lot of time asking that we pay more attention to the mental health of our people.
While many view the BBI report as proposing constitutional changes to benefit some group or other, a close reading of the report indicates that we are now reaching a consensus that no matter what system of governance we eventually settle on, no matter the number of constitutional overhauls we do, we will get nowhere as long as the mental health of our people continues to be neglected.
All our important national documents, from the Constitution to the various reports produced in the wake of our recurrent political crises, provide a poignant education for any mental health expert.
They lay bare our national psyche, exposing the historical traumas we have suffered and continue to suffer without respite.
They exemplify the aphorism that “hurting people hurt people”, as we continue to saddle ourselves with situations that increase our suffering for the simple reason that we suffered similarly ourselves.
The creation of the task force is a demonstration of our resolve as a nation to turn our backs on the things that continue to hurt us, and to boldly face the future confident that anything else we do will be done on the understanding that we are healthy; we are safe, and we are happy.
Lukoye Atwoli is an associate professor of psychiatry at Moi University School of Medicine; [email protected]