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Mental disorders start in your teens

 Kenya Mental Health Action Plan 2021-2025 estimates that half of all mental disorders start by the age of 14 and 75 percent by the age of 24. [iStockphoto]

One out of every eight people has a mental health disorder, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) which lists Africa as the leading in suicide deaths.

We were just consumed with utter devastation by the news of a student in Nakuru County who lost her life through suicide recently, for instance. That incident reminds us of the burden of mental health and how it cuts across even the seemingly innocuous aspects of our human existence.

Mental health is defined "as a state of well-being whereby individuals recognize and realize their abilities, are able to cope with the normal stresses of life, work productively and make a contribution to their communities".

Disruptions to a person's mental well-being can adversely compromise capacity and the choices made, leading not only to diminished functioning at the individual level but also to broader welfare losses for the household and society.

Kenya is experiencing a rapid increase in suicides, mental health conditions, substance use and addictive disorders of an epidemic proportion, an indication of social challenges and unmet societal needs at societal levels.

The Kenya Mental Health Action Plan 2021-2025 estimates that half of all mental disorders start by the age of 14 and 75 percent by the age of 24. A quarter to half of the admitted patients in our hospitals are estimated by the Kenya Ministry of Health, to suffer from mental conditions irrespective of other conditions that necessitated their admission to the hospital.

In his book, The Chronicles of a Village Surgeon, Dr Stanley Aruyaru describes the case of attempted suicide by a young boy, an example of the many cases in the book indicative of how surgery has not been spared the challenges of mental illness.

Others include gender-based violence and interpersonal violence emanating from mental illness or substance abuse.

Sadly, cases of suicide and violence leading to loss of life or limb mean there was a lost opportunity to intervene early and prevent the occurrence of these mental health emergencies.

Experts recommend that to ensure timely intervention, we need access to mental health care services in all the public health facilities, increased awareness at the grassroots or community level as well as allocation of adequate resources by the government towards mental health.

Along the same line, there is a need for the empowerment of all healthcare workers, including those not in the mental health discipline, to be on the lookout for mental health issues underlying the presentation of the patients they serve. Even going further, this empowerment can involve parents watching out in their children, the college student checking with peers, the worker checking in with their colleagues, and the general public in case of a need to assist an ordinary Kenyan who may require support. Or just to get that knowledge and help yourself!

That is why an EdTech company is developing such an interactive mobile-based online program on mental health awareness. Unicorn Valley Technologies will soon be launching the Mentally Healthy program that aims to support a thriving population through Mental Health awareness campaigns at the grassroots level. The program's interactive content will be accessible through smartphones and computers. Being able to discuss mental health at home is paramount to building strong communities that are empathetic and considerate of each other.

The free and openly available program aims to create awareness and fight the stigma around Mental Health in Kenya. The Mentally Healthy program supports everyone with access to mental health knowledge and provides guidance on available mental health support services across Kenya.

Dr Stanley Aruyaru is a consultant surgeon, Gladys Kiama is a mental health expert, and Angella Ngunje, is an eLearning specialist.

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