Think outside the box on mental healthcare

Wednesday December 04 2019

The 2016 “Out of the shadows: Making mental health a global development priority”, organised by the World Health Organisation and the World Bank, drew attention to mental health, which has since elicited considerable talk on the issue.


In Kenya, there has just been held a conference whose theme was making mental health a priority public health and socio-economic agenda. Concurrently, President Uhuru Kenyatta has directed the Health ministry to establish a task force on the status of mental health in the country and develop policies to address the growing concerns.

But it is imperative that we ask ourselves if the discussions we should be having are on crafting more policies. The elephant in the room is the collective trauma that Kenyans are going through and how to address it — definitely, not through more policies.

Notably, Kenya is amending its old Mental Health Act to conform with the current Constitution and international legal instruments. Besides, the Mental Health Policy 2015-2030 provides for a framework on interventions for securing mental health system reforms.



It is of concern that, in Kenya, mental health is mistaken to be synonymous with mental illness. The image that the mention of mental illness brings up is often that of psychotropic medication and more mental health facilities. No, we must avoid this route!

There is often an erroneous perception when people do bad things: That they have mental health problems. It can be traced to a disease model that assumes people with mental health conditions are a danger to themselves and the society. It has, over the years, resulted in mental institutions being built in which to lock them away.

This is a very dangerous trend. It not only leads to more stigma towards people with mental health conditions but can also result in mental health investments that do not address the problem at hand. How do we address the trauma of a nation without necessarily falling to the trap of ‘these are mental cases that need to be addressed’?


How are we going to deal with social injustices such as unemployment, corruption and impunity, which, to a large extent, are leading a huge population into despair and frustration? How are we going to use traditional knowledge of, for example, dealing with marital discord, where young people embrace the virtue of involving their clan in their marriage plans? Are we all going to turn to ‘This is depression; let us treat it’ when, already, there is not an environment that mentors and nurtures young people on relationships?

As someone who has lived with mental distress and is involved in mental health advocacy, I feel that these discussions must move away from the realm of medicine and, importantly, seek innovative and non-medical solutions to the emerging issues.


We may speak of having data on mental health but which data? The data of people who have mental health diagnosis? That of people who can access mental health services? Our energies should be directed more on ensuring that our communities are safe to thrive in. Let’s expend our energies on ending social injustices. There must be a deliberate effort to change how things have always been done in this country as regards mental health.

Ms Ombati is a disability rights advocate. [email protected]