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Health: That stubborn teenager could be mentally ill

By Mercy Adhiambo | Published Sun, September 10th 2017 at 00:00, Updated September 9th 2017 at 19:05 GMT +3
The student suspect in the Moi Girls fire tragedy  PHOTO BY GEORGE NJUNGE

In 2003, the country woke to news that a Form Three student had committed suicide at St Teresa’s Girls Secondary School in Kisumu.

It was reported that while her classmates were having supper, Maureen Agolla sneaked into the fourth floor of a building under construction and hanged herself using a neck tie. She was 18.

Many wondered why a student with so much potential decided to end her life. She was a top performer, a prefect and came from a stable family. What could possibly have driven her to commit suicide?

There was speculation that ‘the devil made her’ do it or she was spoilt by her parents.

“People said many things. Our family was shunned and we lived in shame,” says her sister Terry Adhiambo.

It is nearly 15 years since they got news that her sister who had casually mentioned on several occasions that one day she would kill herself, had actually done it.

Terry opened up to Sunday Standard on what ailed her sister, and the things they wished they had addressed earlier.

They noticed a change of behavior when Maureen was in Form Two. The previously introverted child would get sudden bursts of energy that would send her singing and dancing around the house, till her energy fizzled out and she went back to her quiet self.

“We did not know what was happening to her. We thought it is peer influence,” says Terry.

Then came irritability – so bad that they had to weigh every word they said lest they annoy her.

Terry recalls Maureen scribbling in her journal; her most treasured possession that she carried everywhere.

“We assumed it was adolescence. We tried counselling her during holidays, but it did not help much,” she says.

Maureen’s personality changed so much, that within one year, her grades dropped.

A visit to a psychiatrist revealed that she had schizophrenia - a mental disorder characterised by abnormal social behavior.

“The word schizophrenia was mentioned, but back then, there was little information, we thought it is something that will just pass,” she says.

Maureen’s doctor suggested a change of school to give her a fresh start.


“We lost our father and another sibling, so her doctor thought the stress was too much for her,” she says.

Upon transfer, she started demanding to go to another school. She complained of bad food, bullying, to things her family felt were petty. When they insisted she had to complete the term, she opted to kill herself.

“We have never understood why she had to kill herself two days before closing day. We often wonder what was going on in her mind,” says Terry.

Counselling psychologist Loyce Noo says many teenagers suffer from mental disorders, but their parents refuse to acknowledge, or cannot identify the condition.

“Most people say mental illness is not an African thing, especially conditions like schizophrenia and bipolar which manifests at adolescence,” says Ms Noo. She advises parents to be on the lookout, especially when their children display uncontrolled rage, make blank statements of hopelessness, go into seclusion and have odd character.

Noo says the brain develops fast during adolescence, and that is when genetically predisposed conditions, or those caused by abnormalities in the brain’s chemistry manifest.

“What you are calling a stubborn teen could actually be a mentally ill child who needs medical attention,” she says.

Her statement comes a few days after the student who is at the centre of investigations on the cause of fire at Moi Girls’ was taken for mental assessment after a court order.

When a WhatsApp conversation among a group of individuals alleged to have planned the incident leaked, social media users blamed it on poor parenting and too much freedom.

“Let us go to old school parenting where we could not threaten our parents, and made no demands because parents knew where the whip was,” said a Facebook user.

Faith Nafula, children psychologist in Nairobi, advises parents to strive to have a solid relationship with their children, and make them feel safe.

“Sometimes all they need is someone who tells them they are understood,” says Nafula.

Rose Gakii, who has bipolar says she is lucky she sailed through teenage without a major incidence although the condition was diagnosed when she was in her 20s.

She describes her teenage as lonely. Rose held to the delusions of grandeur her mind created. “My teenage is a blur. I was the bad moody child who was always be angry,” she says.

Her diagnosis came ten years after she left high school and beat her sister till she fell unconscious.