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Address mental health challenges in the police service

May 19th 2022
National Police Service officers during a medical assessment of sick officers living with disabilities acquired in the line of duty in Mombasa. [Omondi Onyango,Standard]

The issue of mental health challenges among Kenyans has become quite critical in recent years. Many people are grappling with ill mental health, with some thinking of, or actually taking their own lives as a result. While mental illness is devastating for anybody, it should raise even more concern for the government when it is rampant among the police.

First, there is no gainsaying that people serving in the police service have easy access to weapons. When people get overwhelmed by life, many of them get suicidal. Police officers dealing with psychological challenges have a lot of risks associated with their daily interaction with and use of service-issued guns. If left untreated for long, it is easy for such a person to act on the thought of committing suicide. Unlike regular people, a police officer does not need to search too far to find a way to take their own life.

Secondly, depressed officers are a greater risk to the general population than regular civilians with mental health problems. Unfortunately, many depressed people resort to not only taking their own lives but those of other people around them. An armed person, such as one serving in the police service, is more likely to engage in a murder-suicide than a regular person. We have heard of many cases where an armed member of the service has killed family members, colleagues and even strangers, before turning the gun on themselves. Perhaps the most recent is the case of an officer who was said to have killed six people in Kabete during a shooting spree that ended in suicide.

Thirdly, police officers are expected to be ‘tough’. They are presumed to be able to deal with any situation, no matter how challenging. Society looks upon the police for protection and rarely takes time to think of them as humans, with emotions and the potential to be vulnerable, even overwhelmed. I can imagine that many police officers are prone to bottling up emotions in a society where very few people are empathetic to their situations. It can be even worse when people trivialise their work and capabilities. In Kenya, the officers are still struggling to change the public’s perception of the service as comprised of corrupt people of little education. Many people think the police service is the place for academic dwarfs.

Yet, the police service is full of many ethical, professional, and highly skilled men and women performing their duties with utmost respect for the rule of law. Such upright officers can feel misunderstood and unappreciated, especially when dealing with challenging events.

Granted, a lot has been done to offer psycho-social support to the officers. However, a lot more needs to be done. With reports of over 12,000 police officers battling mental health challenges, the National Police Service Commission needs to intensify efforts to diagnose and treat ill mental health among members. A mentally ill, armed officer is one too many. Support for post-traumatic stress disorder is necessary not only in the work environment but also at the community and household levels. There is need to extend awareness especially among the officers’ families to provide sustainable support beyond their workstations.

Dr Kiambati is a communications trainer and consultant, Kenyatta University


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