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  • Writer's pictureIrungu Houghton

We must support the Mental Health Bill

The rising number of public stories of suicides, femicides and homicides found their way into this year’s Presidential Madaraka Day speech. With a new Mental Health Bill being debated in the Senate and the global launch of the powerful Kenyan film “Lusala” at the Nairobi Film Festival, it is time we talked about our mental health and well-being as a country.

English scrabble players know there are over 120 words that end in “cide”. Almost all the words are associated with killing off something that is healthy and living. We cannot discuss the rising public cases of suicides, femicides or homicides without understanding the broader challenge of mental health and well-being.

Every day last year close to 273 people sought out-patient services for mental stress and depression. One in four Kenyans currently suffer from mental health and well-being issues. Five in six of those who do, will not receive professional treatment. With two million reported cases of acute depression, Kenya ranks sixth in Africa. Suicide is now the second most prevalent cause of death and men are three times more likely to be affected.

Yet, only fourteen of our counties have at least one hospital with the capacity to provide mental health services. Kenya remains one of 54 countries in the world that does not budget separately to respond. By World Health Organisation standards, we should have 1,533 psychiatrists operating in the country. In reality, we have 62 psychiatrists and 500 nurses.

It is not only the inadequate public resources and infrastructure that endangers us. DustIt D2 hotel first time responder, every day hero and mental health survivor Philip Ogola will tell you that our conservatism and ignorance also exposes us to direct risk. Rather than treat mental illness as a common sickness, we grasp for spiritual explanations that border on demonology. Our workplaces have no policies and our homes have no intentional strategies of building mental resilience among our colleagues and loved ones.

It is easy to point to our national circumstances – discrimination, drug and substance abuse, violence and crime, corruption, inequalities or rising living costs - for explanations. Senator Sylvia Kasanga and champion of the 2018 Bill feels Kenyans are simply stressed by unmet expectations for safety, self-respect, success, affection or validation. In a world where we feel we must dominate or be dominated, failure is not an option, judgments come freely and easily. We attach personal blame, resentment, disappointment, fear or fatigue to our relationships and life-goals. In this space, it is easy for us to become walking upsets waiting to implode or explode on others.

The 2018 Mental Health Bill is critical for Kenya. With these rising trends, the 2010 constitution and devolution of public health to the counties, the Mental Health Act of 1989 is now outdated. The new Bill seeks to enshrine our right to appropriate, affordable, accessible physical and mental medical health care, counselling and after-care support. Persons with mental illness will have the right to be informed, consented on and participate in their treatment plans. They will be protected from any form of forced or exploitative labour or the denial of medical insurance. The Bill also obligates both national and county governments to deepen public understanding, reduce incidences and public stigma and provide mental services that accelerate recovery.

In the absence of mindset and behavioural changes, laws have little power to transform. I have gathered a few simple insights to transform personal challenges over the years. Nothing that has happened to my life has had an impact on who I am. What has profoundly shaped my character, is the decisions and conclusions I have made up and hold about myself and those around me. Secondly, I may have emotions, sometimes very strong ones, but my emotions do not have me (well not for very long). Lastly, it is not that I have toxic people in my live, it is that I do not have an empowering way of dealing with them.

Speaking at the 2019 Fearless Summit this week organised by the Mavuno Church, Brian Kagoro reminded us to find a cause, nurture confidence and a respect for our own thoughts and self-worth. If we do this, we too will make a difference in our world. This wise counsel, self-care and being gentle with ourselves will keep us healthy and well. As we do this, we must also support the new Mental Health Bill when it comes up for debate on Tuesday.

First published Saturday Standard, June 8, 2019. Kindly reproduced here with permission from the Standard Group


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