Mental Health in Kenya from whispers to awareness

Post Date: 31 August 2016

There are currently 81 psychiatrists for a population of 41.6 million Kenyans. Most of these are in private practice with around 25 psychiatrists located in the public sector and even then are concentrated within urban areas. Quite frankly, the treatment gap on mental health in Kenya is dire.

With attention principally focused on communicable diseases, the importance of placing non-communicable diseases such as mental health as a priority has become increasingly evident both in its own right and due to its effects on health, education and social goals of a society.  However, the topic has elicited little effort to collectively deal with the condition.
Using recent survey findings commissioned by the International Institute for Legislative Affairs (ILA) as a reference, striking is the fact that 61% of the Kenyan population hold the view that the government has not made enough provisions to take care of persons with mental disorders. A further 93% of the population were not aware of any steps taken by the government to address issues of mental disorder.
At least 71% of Kenyans cite the cause of mental disorders to substance abuse of drugs and alcohol. Also noted was that 31% of Kenyans cite witchcraft as a cause of mental disorder and brain damage due to road accidents at 22%.
The most telling of the survey findings was the stigma associated with mental illness. Those interviewed were readily forthcoming with knowledge of whether they knew anyone suffering from a mental disorder within their community but would however coil at the idea of having to reveal anyone within their household having a mental disorder.  53% of the respondents stated knowing someone in their community with a mental disorder although this reduced when posed at the household level with only 5% revealing that they know someone experiencing mental disorder from their household and slightly high up again when asked about relatives in which case 14% of those polled stated having a next of kin with a mental health condition.
With stigma and little government effort to create awareness as well as providing mental health services, treating mental illness in Kenya is a challenge.  It does not help matters that the legislation currently in place is antiquated and out of touch with the current prevailing reality.
To that end, the proposed mental health bill, which is currently in parliament having gone through the first reading, endeavours to be what the current Act is not. While repealing the Act, the bill provides for the recognition of rights owed to persons with mental illness most notably the protection from discrimination.
The bill while taking cognizance of the constitutionally ordained national and county governments, charges the two levels of government to determine and coordinate the implementation of their health policies in such a way that mental health services are available from the community level, ensuring adequate funding of mental health care services while promoting the rights of persons with mental illness and at the same time, promoting and improving the mental health status of the people.
One of the key note changes in the Bill that fundamentally alters the manner in which treatment of mental illness is provided is the shift to community health and primary mental health care and treatment and later the re-integration of the person into the community as opposed to the institutionalization of persons with mental illness.
However, even with a progressive law, much needs to be done to create public awareness with the view to reducing stigma associated with mental illness as well as increased government effort in providing mental health care services and information. Nevertheless, the proposed mental health bill offers a good launching pad in progressively dealing and treating persons with mental illness.
Martin Muiru & Philip Gichana – Policy and Legislative Drafting Programme