In December 2018, Moses Musimbi, 52, made frantic calls to his neighbours to come and save him. He was hiding from his 24-year-old son who was holding a knife, threatening to kill the whole family.
The days preceding the event had been marked by intense prayer and trips to the police station. His son had been provoked by a neighbour into a fight, leading to serious injuries. He had been an ‘erratic child’ who always got into trouble.
The signs started when he was in high school. Mood swings, poor grades and at Form Three, he got expelled for experimenting with drugs.
“We caned him, got the chief involved and took him to stay with his uncle in the village because we thought his behaviour was from peer pressure,” says Musimbi.
It was until that day, while hiding under the bed, that it dawned on him that his son was sick. With the help of friends, they tied him with ropes and took him to the police station where he was placed in the cells for two days before he was referred to a doctor who diagnosed him with schizoaffective disorder; a mental condition that makes people detach from reality and affects their mood. “When the doctor explained, we realised our son was suffering. We had beaten him, denied him food and compared him with his siblings. We did not know,” says Musimbi.
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As the World Mental Health Day is marked today, psychiatrists say there are many such cases that go undiagnosed and the victims are subjected to inhumane treatment. This year’s theme campaigns for increased investment in mental health infrastructure. In Kenya, only 0.01 per cent of the total expenditure is invested in mental health.
A report released in July by the National Task Force on Mental Health paints a grim picture, saying in a family of five, there is a high possibility that one of them has a mental illness. The report further states that 30 per cent of people currently admitted in hospitals have a mental illness. “It is overwhelming. Only 14 counties have functioning mental health units,” says Dr Syengo Mutisya, consultant psychiatrist who is part of the task force.
The task force was mandated by President Uhuru Kenyatta on Madaraka Day of last year to examine and guide on a solution to the increased suicides and violence that were being reported in the country.
“Depression has today become a common phenomenon and it affects persons from all walks of life and ages. I urge employers and institutions of learning to invest more time and resources in monitoring and facilitating the mental well-being of their charges,” Uhuru said while commissioning the task force.
The task force found out that most Kenyans get distressed about politics, especially in months leading to elections, and the ones who had undergone or witnessed violence in previous elections get post-traumatic stress disorder symptoms.
Dr Pacifica Onyancha, the acting director at the Directorate of Medical Services in the Department of Preventive and Promotive Health in the Ministry of Health, says Covid-19 has complicated the mental health situation. “There has been increased anxiety over catching the virus, depression from loss of income, and the disruption of social activities affected the mental health of many Kenyans in the Covid times,” says Dr Onyancha.
She says most insurance companies do not cover people with mental illnesses due to the stigma the disease carries based on cultural beliefs. She says substance abuse is a common manifestation of mental illness in Kenya, yet most medics and society treat it as a self-inflicted condition.
The task force recommends formation of a Mental Health and Happiness Commission that will not only address treatment of mental health but also monitor the happiness index in the country. They also want suicide to be decriminalised. The latest global happiness index shows that Kenya trails at the bottom when it comes to happiness.
Psychatrists now want the government to increase funding for improving mental health. Dr Syengo says most people diagnosed with mental disorders fail to adhere to medication because they are too expensive and cheaper versions have side effects.