Mental illnesses to blame for suicides

A suicidal teenager.[Courtesy]

The task-force on mental health reported that in the last few years Kenya has witnessed an unprecedented number of people and families adversely affected by poor mental health.

It is estimated that at least 25 per cent of outpatients and 40 per cent of inpatients in different health facilities across the country present symptoms of mental illness.

Sadly, unlike other illnesses, the greatest impact of mental ill health does not lie solely in the number of fatalities, but from the number of years lived with the disability, untold suffering and the possibility of the illness causing patients to commit suicide.

About 800,000 people die from suicide each year (that is one person every 40 seconds), majority of them aged 15-29 years, in which age-group suicide is the second leading cause of death according to the World Health OrganiSation (WHO). In Kenya, WHO estimates that 1408 people commit suicide yearly, translating to four deaths daily.

According to the African Population Health and Research Centre (APHRC) official statistics on suicide in Kenya may be impossible to obtain owing to under-reporting or misreporting of such deaths, seeing as attempting to commit suicide is criminalised.

The Task Force on Mental Health mandated to study the status of mental health reported that Kenya has a high burden of mental illness due to ill health, psychosocial disability, and premature mortality with huge gaps in access to care. This is in sync with the ministry of health’s report that depression is the most common psychiatric disorder in people who die by suicide.

From cultural and social perspectives, stigma attached to suicide is very high, almost over-shadowing the loss that relatives, friends, colleagues, and communities experience from such deaths. The good news is that suicides and suicide attempts are preventable. There is much that can be done to prevent suicide at individual, community, and national levels.

The East African Centre for Human Rights (EACHRights), the Regional Child Rights organisation based in Nairobi whose advocacy work is well known in education, child protection and health postulates that the first very step to addressing suicide as a social problem is to draw the connection between suicide and mental health.

Research has found that suicide and suicidal thoughts are brought about by depression, anxiety and sometimes, substance use disorders. By sensitising the public that suicide is a consequence of an illness and not a weakness as it is thought to be, the silence can be broken. Also, by addressing causes of depression, anxiety and substance abuse, root causes of suicide can be reduced or stopped.

Last year’s International Mental Health Day theme; “Working Together to Prevent Suicide”, raised significant awareness of the scale of suicide around the world and the role that each of us can play to help prevent it. The government is already playing a role in actualising the right to health.

For instance, through the universal health care, the government seeks to improve access to mental health services by facilitating early identification and effective management of mental disorders and harmful use of alcohol and other substances.

The government has taken suicide reduction measures by prioritising suicide prevention as a key strategic action in the Mental Health Policy and implementation of presidential directive on multisectoral policy response on mental health issues.

While EACHRights lauds the government of Kenya for the foregoing in addition to considering decriminalisation of attempted suicide, we maintain that there is still a huge gap in knowledge. This is exemplified from our findings that impediments to seeking help include, but are not limited to; lack of awareness that their problems are treatable, stigma associated with illness and discomfort with the idea of needing help.

Thus, there is need to continue to sensitise the public about mental illness to enable them to identify cases and channel them to where they can get help. This in our view, will have a huge impact in preventing suicides. It is about time mental health was demystified through proper sensitisation of the population, not only about the disease, but with information about where help can be found.

As the think-thank on matters human rights in the region, we hope that more evidence-based advocacy on mental health will be able to open more doors to different interventions that will positively impact the society nationally and regionally.