Statistics don’t lie, and the mental health statistics in Kenya are as alarming as they are dismaying. In a 2017 WHO report, Kenya was ranked 5th among African countries with the highest rates of depression. Suicide is the fourth leading cause of death among people aged 15–29 around the globe, and with recent reports, younger people are attempting suicide, with the youngest recorded case of suicide in Kenya being a 9-year-old.
I have just re-watched the CNN documentary “Locked Up and Forgotten” and the emotions that came up have forced me to re-evaluate the situation of mental health in Kenya today. In viewing the film and confronting the statistics, one thing occurred to me: most of us are blissfully ignorant of the reality of so many people struggling with mental health, and ignorance places us in a position where we don’t have to confront the situation and find solutions. However, the irony of this ignorance is that we all have the potential to suffer from mental illnesses, the potential to be the caretakers of loved ones with mental illnesses, and the potential to be “locked up and forgotten.”
In recent years, cases of suicide have increased, and the news has taken center stage in broadcasting these to us, from successful doctors to teenagers who have their whole lives ahead of them all dying by suicide. However, there are a few devastating facts. First off, despite the fact that mental health is a universal right that should be accessible to all, the cost of accessing it is so significantly high that most people, let alone young people, are unable to afford it. The government, on its side, has only allocated 0.01% of the National Health Budget to mental health, meaning that for every 250 shillings that the government should spend on mental health, it only spends 15 cents. The reality is that most counties don’t have psychiatric hospitals, and referrals have to be made to Mathari National Hospital, leading to it overflowing with patients and health personnel overwhelmed with the needed care. As such, people in need of essential mental health care, including therapy or medication, are unable to afford or access it.
Secondly, the stigma surrounding mental health in our society is a major contributor to people hiding their mental health struggles, not seeking help, and under-reporting suicide cases. Mental illnesses in Kenyan communities are still viewed as “madness”, results of witchcraft, or even an attempt to attract attention. The stigma of mental health extends to our laws, with Section 226 of the Penal Code criminalizing suicide and terming it a misdemeanor punishable by 2 years in prison, a fine, or both. In other words, one is punished for being so pushed to the edge by their mental health that they see death as a way to end their pain and suffering. With this kind of attitude and stigma, the rates of reported cases of suicide and attempted suicides are lower, which also means people are constantly in need of help but afraid to seek it. We need laws that heal, laws that respond to the needs of those they protect, and a society that embraces love and compassion above all else.
There are different ways we can contribute to the changes that make our society better. For starters, understanding the different signs of struggling with mental health can place us in a better position to seek help or offer support when struggling. For instance, constantly feeling sad, hopeless, and even having suicidal thoughts and no longer enjoying things that used to make you happy could be an indicator of depression. For mental health to be realized as a universal right for all, we all must take whatever steps are necessary to break the stigma, offer support, and challenge laws that do not serve us.