Many would argue that we are living in times far much better than the past. For instance, the average global life span has significantly increased, thanks to an unprecedented advancement in technology in the health sector that has rendered many diseases that were once fatal, for example malaria, treatable. Other deadly diseases that ravaged humanity many years back, such as small pox, have been successfully eradicated.
Intensive research in microbiology has exposed the microorganisms that were previously dangerous and allowed us to develop ways of combating them. Because of this, a young person living in Nairobi today does not have to worry about dying from an infectious disease anymore. One can easily walk into a hospital and get treated within a few hours. Health issues that would have been a big deal many years ago do not even occupy the mind of the average modern young person today, and you would be forgiven for believing that young people have the luxury of living lives devoid of stress.
Interestingly, global health is now diverting focus from communicable diseases to non-communicable diseases for that reason. For many communicable diseases that we have not eradicated, we have vaccines and effective treatment for. Health care has significantly improved over time and has brought with it the promise of long, quality and fulfilling lives.
Even then, there is an unacknowledged epidemic lurking in the shadows of our modern lives, threatening to make a mockery of the gains made in the health sector; the increase in mental health issues. According to the World Health Organisation, over 450 million people suffer from mental disorders globally. What’s more, only about a third of people with known mental disorders seek treatment. Here in Kenya, about 40 per cent of in-patients in health facilities suffer from a mental illness.
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Yet five in six people who suffer from mental illnesses do not seek medical treatment. The statistics tell the story of a silent epidemic that calls for urgent intervention. It exposes us to the stark reality that a majority of people with mental illnesses are suffering silently, perhaps because of lack of awareness about their condition, or perhaps because of the stigma associated with living with a mental illness.
To make matters worse, many mental illnesses do not present physical symptoms like other known diseases and seem like mysteries to many of us, hence leaving room for superstitions to thrive.
Interestingly, the youth are especially vulnerable to mental health issues. Picture this: Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged between 15 and 29 years; substance abuse continues to afflict many other young people; and this is compounded by a culture that encourages drinking as a way to unwind and socialise with friends. Furthermore, many young people are silently or even unknowingly suffering from depression, rendering them unproductive and threatening to cut short their dreams.
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Then why does this crisis remain largely unacknowledged even when it continues to ravage our communities? As things stands, we seem not to have acknowledged the depth of our mental health situation and are largely unaware of its impact on our lives and communities. Perhaps this is why even though mental health issues account for 14 per cent of all global health conditions, mental health receives only about 1 per cent of many countries’ healthcare budgets.
What if we invested more resources to addressing our mental health situation? Fortunately, our legislative bodies are equal to the task. There is a Mental Health (Amendment) Bill 2018 sponsored by Senator Sylvia Kasanga.
It is important to expedite the assent and implementation of this Bill, which seeks to provide the much-needed legislative framework of ensuring that any person with mental illness receives the highest attainable standards of health. Both the national and county governments should step up efforts to provide mental healthcare and develop the necessary infrastructure for mental health services.
Second, it is important that the public is aware of the impact of mental health, that our society recognises the vulnerability of young people to mental illnesses. We all have a part to play in this by actively reducing the stigma, which makes living with a mental illness an insurmountable burden.
Our society needs to appreciate that mental illness is just that; an illness. That way, it will be easier to ensure community participation in the mental well-being of young people. The Government should support community based care and treatment for persons with mental illness. We should all provide safe spaces for ourselves and for people with mental illness to support their journey to recovery and integration into the community.
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Mr Mokamba comments on social issues