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Pay more attention to mental health

By Sitawa Wafula | Updated Tue, October 11th 2016 at 00:00 GMT +3

In recent years, ‘Africa Rising’ has been a catchphrase in many conversations about Africa. This phrase describes perceived development and the opportunity for more growth.

Kenya has taken these words to heart, hosting international meetings like UNCTAD and TICAD as follow-ups to the Global Entrepreneurship Summit that hosted President Obama last year, all in an effort to create an atmosphere for trade and development and underscore the ‘Africa Rising’ theme.

According to World Median Age, Africa is the youngest continent with a median age of 19.7, meaning its rise is largely in the hands of its young people. African governments have taken this into consideration and written youth into their development plans.

Kenya, for example, has come up with initiatives like the Youth Fund, whose strategic focus is on enterprise development and participation by Kenyan’s youth in nation building.

Despite these efforts, the rise of Africa is leaving something out. It does not put into consideration the need to create a conducive environment for the mental well-being of the people who are powering this rise.

In an effort to bring this to light, World Health Organisation (WHO) teamed up with the World Bank (WB) earlier this year to convene an international gathering dubbed ‘Out of the Shadows; Making Mental Health a Global Priority’.

Most governments neglect the burden mental health issues place on economies and the ‘weight of unproductivity’ brought about by the fact that 25 percent of the population experiences a mental health condition at some point.

Around the same time, the Ministry of Health in Kenya launched the first mental health policy which, though completed in 2015, took one year to be shared with the public.

The policy has been aligned with key national legislation, including the Constitution of Kenya (2010), the Kenya Vision 2030 and the Kenya Health Policy (2012-2030) and seeks to reform the mental health system in the country. It also aims to address among other things the systemic challenges and emerging trends as well as mitigate the burden of mental disorders and overhaul the Mental Health Act, Cap 248 from 1989; which is the main legal framework for mental health in Kenya.

The policy notes that there is lack of leadership in the mental health field and proposes a mental health board to oversee, among other things, funding to ensure service provision, training of service providers and guidelines for those in the mental health sector as well as to create public awareness of the issue.

Though beautiful on paper and a clear outline on how dignity can be restored in this key arm of development and the rise of Kenya, the reality on the ground is different. The sector will remain stuck until the mental health board becomes functional.

For this to happen, there is need for a mental health bill which outlines the board’s functions and duties, but efforts to put through this legislation have stalled because of differences between the National Assembly and the Senate.

As all this grinds on, Kenya’s only referral hospital continues to be congested with an occupancy rate of 200 per cent and areas like Nyanza Province continue to have just one psychiatrist expected to attend to more than 5 million people in the region.

One therefore wonders why no effort is put in creating structures to help people in the early stages of mental health problems so that all the developmental efforts see the light of day.

In Kenya’s case, this means passing the mental health bill, which provides for leadership in the mental health sector so that this large segment of our population can begin making their own contributions to uplifting the country.