I was okay to die at 16, confesses health advocate

Onyango Otieno, a mental health advocate. Domestic violence at home led him to develop suicidal thoughts. [Image: Standard]

Mombasa is that city famous for offering pleasure and pain in equal measure but for Otieno Onyango; it was the best place to end his life.

It was 2014, at 16, when he made up his mind to travel to Mombasa to die. In his mind, he had several options: jump in front of a moving car, take poison or drown in the ocean.

“I remember giving up my spirit to heaven. I was tired of everything. I was okay with dying,” he says.

The feeling that he will soon be no more was calming, he says.

“I reckoned that death will end my suffering. I had been in pain for so long and the people around me did not understand,” he says.

Onyango says his emotional and mental turmoil originated from home. It was a violent setting, he says, and it was eating him up.

“My parents fought a lot. Dad struggled with alcoholism and it made him violent towards my mum and I,” he recalls.

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The situation made him grow in fear and he admits that he never had a real relationship with his father as a result.

“I felt alone and helpless for most of my childhood because my father was never emotionally reachable,” he says.

The World Health Organisation(WHO) lists the quality of life at home for adolescents as one of the determinants of their mental health status.

For example, the global health body states that 10-19-year-olds are more prone to violence, among them sexual violence which will, in turn, be detrimental to mental health.

 “Violence (including harsh parenting and bullying) and socio-economic problems are recognized risks to mental health,” reads the global health body in its September 2018 update.

Such is what Onyango was facing and the only way out for him was suicide. He recalls that he stole his father’s ATM Card and withdrew Sh500 to use as transport to go to Mombasa from Nairobi.

“I wanted to go die at a place nobody knew me. I had never been there before. There was no formal plan.

At the time, I was okay with anything killing me. Whether it would be a car accident, poison, or drowning myself in the ocean,” he recalls.

He says he wrote a note and left home. His parents however learnt of his plans before he could board a vehicle. He says they thought he was bewitched.

“I was taken to pastors and weird spiritual practitioners. I don't know what to call them. Nobody would have thought I needed medical attention. So even though I didn't die, a huge chunk of my mental and emotional instability remained with me,” he says.

WHO estimates that about 10-20 per cent of adolescents globally experience mental health conditions, yet they remain under-diagnosed and under-treated.

“Signs of poor mental health can be overlooked for a number of reasons, such as a lack of knowledge or awareness about mental health among health workers, or stigma preventing them from seeking help,” says WHO.

Onyango says it has taken him 15 years to be in the right state of mental health. Nobody goes through life with plans that one day they will kill themselves, he says.

“I am healthy now. Been through the Green String Network's trauma healing program which absolutely transformed my life, alongside other fellowships that made me understand myself better. I have since been able to feel safe within my mind and feel like I am in control of my life,” he says.

One of the ways he used to stay mentally sane, he listened to music and drowned himself in art.

“I would say if someone experiences suicide ideation, dealing with it may not be easy but breathing exercises really help in calming tour thoughts down. That is like a mental first aid,” he says.

Onyango says the society is yet to understand mental health due to stigma and ignorance.

“What we can't explain in our capacity we often leave to religion or the gods. But with technological and scientific innovations and advancements, we are getting to understand more about who we are, and that's a good thing,” he notes.

He says due to lack of knowledge, the government has not sufficiently invested in mental health.

As a result, there are few practitioners and are overwhelmed by the demand for their services, making it extremely difficult to help people en masse.

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Onyango OtienoMental health advocateSuicide