Childhood schizophrenia: the little-talked about mental health condition

Talking about mental illness is taboo in most African societies but it is even worse where children are involved as some people do not think that children can suffer from mental illnesses.

In some quarters, it is attributed to curses and people will be seen either running away from children or excessively employing disciplinary measures, thinking that they could be acting up. Such suffering of children, who also have to deal with stigma on a daily basis, is usually as a result of ignorance about the state of mental health of children.

Here are two stories that tell of the stigma against children with mental illnesses

Diana Wambani (not her real name) is a middle-aged PhD. student at the University of Nairobi and has accomplished so much in her career and personal life. While her life looks complete and fulfilled, she is missing one thing, the love, and companionship of her twin sister who is mentally challenged.

Diana’s Story (as told by the narrator)

My name is Diana Wambani, and this is the story of my struggle with mental health. I’m not comfortable sharing my identity since I have married children, who would mind because there are in-laws who don’t have this information. And yes, I know this validates everything about the state of mental illness but even now I’m afraid for the stigma on my grown children.

Many people tell me that my twin sister, Mary and I were so cute as babies that passers-by would always comment on the double dose of beauty. However, as soon as I started learning my first words, Mary garbled unintelligent words on her own. She threw tantrums, and soon it became obvious she was not alright. She was immediately labelled crazy, idiot.

Growing up, she would break all cups and plates and my mum would burn her hands with red-hot spoons to make her stop. She didn’t. She had to wear khaki dresses because anything less was torn like a piece of paper before she’d take off naked. At times, she would put teeth to the neckline of her khaki dress and rent it into two pieces in seconds and off she would run stark naked.

Mary was afraid of dogs, and with our ignorant cruelty as children, we would tell her she was being followed by one. In anger and fright, she would chase us all over the place and we revelled in the thrill it gave us. She was raped countless times and even gave birth to two children: one stillborn one alive and normal. I have a sneaky feeling that her child is ashamed to call her, mother.

I went to school and she didn’t. I would be top of the class, but this nasty bully of a boy would keep reminding everyone:

She has passed so well because she stole her sister’s brain when they were in their mother’s womb.

My pride would turn to tears and guilt.

On the night of my Kenyan African Primary Examination, Mary had an episode. She beat my very pregnant mom and chased us around the dark house until 2 am in the morning. I passed.

All these things have not reduced my love for my sister. Although Mary has never been taken for any formal treatment, they suspect she suffers from schizophrenia.

Mary, my twin sister, I love you more than you will ever know.

Wendy’s Story 

Wendy is a 13-year-old girl who lives in Eastlands, Nairobi.  She seemed to be a normal child at birth but by the time she was joining pre-school, her parents thought that she was slower than the other kids and just left her alone. According to her mother, Salome Jas, it was not until she was eleven years old that she started acting strangely.

“She started claiming that she was a Muslim and had knowledge of all Islam-related things yet she had never stepped foot in a mosque or in a Madrasa. The school administration thought she had been radicalised and brought in anti-terror police to interrogate her.

“After this ordeal, all were in agreement that she needed psychiatrist help and that is where the nightmare for the family began,” said Salome

Salome says Wendy could go out roaming and forget her way back and people who knew her would bring her back.

“I took her to a child psychiatrist at the Kenyatta National Hospital where we had to take her for a series of tests that included an MRI and a CT scan and both turned out negative. In the end, the diagnosis was schizophrenia and the doctor prescribed some drugs for her,” explained Salome

The side effects of the drugs were terrible and she became worse. Wendy would break household stuff, threaten to commit suicide, threaten to stab her siblings with a knife, put on excessive makeup and totally forgot how to write and would just scribble.

“Wendy also experienced excessive weight gain and I have since stopped her from taking the drugs and opted for prayer as we try to see if we can get help from another professional. The cost of the drugs was also too much as they had to spend   Ksh. 2,350 per week. This really put a strain on the family’s finances,” said Salome

As if dealing with all of the above problems was not enough, Wendy and her family faced much stigma and everywhere she went people called her crazy and ridiculed her. Wendy had to stop going to school for two years. The parents are looking at a number of schools that can accept her in her condition.

Childhood schizophrenia 

Childhood schizophrenia is an uncommon but severe mental disorder in which children interpret reality abnormally. It entails a range of problems with thinking (cognitive), behaviour or emotions and may result in some combination of hallucinations, delusions, and extremely disordered thinking and behaviour that impairs your child’s ability to function.

It is a chronic condition that requires lifelong treatment. Identifying and starting treatment for childhood schizophrenia as early as possible may significantly improve your child’s long-term outcome

Schizophrenia is not the only condition affecting the mental health of children in Kenya. There are other conditions that also affect children ranging from depression, post-traumatic stress disorders, bipolar and so on.

In an interview with, psychologist Phyllis Thiongo said that incidents of children grappling with mental issues are on the increase. Thiongo, who runs a project in Kajiado that dealt with the issue of mental health of children in Kenya, says that most of the children she saw suffered from depression occasioned by dysfunctional families.

“There is not much that is done the kids are left to just grow and roam in the village. Our work was to let all children meet once a month, we called it children club centre. We teach, have fun and address children issues,” said Phyllis

Most common mental conditions also include deficit hyperactivity disorder among school going kids or simply lack attention; bipolar disorder is also common it’s all about mood swings that gravely affect children. This is always hard to tell because parents confuse it to a child throwing tantrums but if checked early it gets better.

Thiongo, whose project went under because of lack of funds, agrees that while these conditions abound, very little is being done to address the issue and the issue of stigma is also allowed to thrive in many places.

“Members of the community pushed these kids away, called them names, throwing things at them, beating them up and made them sleep outside in the rain and dust. The parents never accepted them to come to the monthly clubs or to school or church. Basically, they were not allowed to come for any function,” said Thiongo

She also alludes to the fact that treating mental illnesses is costly in Kenya and despite their good intentions, it became so apparent to them that it was not sustainable after they handled two cases with each one costing Ksh. 150000.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), one in seven children and adolescents in Africa have significant difficulties, with one in 10 (9.5%) having a specific psychiatric disorder. Worldwide, there are 10-20% of children and adolescents experience mental disorders.

The Borgen Project reports that the most common mental disorders in the region are depression and anxiety. The prevalence rates of anxiety and Major Depressive Disorder ranges from 40 to 55%.

Untreated mental health problems can disrupt children’s functioning at home, school and in the community. Without treatment, children with mental health issues are at increased risk of school failure, contact with the criminal justice system, dependence on social services, and even suicide.

As seen from the story of Wendy and Mary, even the parents and siblings of the young ones are affected by mental health.  Thye can get physically hurt in the process as well.

Parents and family members are usually the first to notice if a child has problems with emotions or behaviour. Your observations, along with those of teachers and other caregivers, can help determine whether you need to seek help for your child.

The following signs may indicate the need for professional help:

  • The decline in school performance
  • Poor grades despite strong efforts
  • Constant worry or anxiety
  • Repeated refusal to go to school or to take part in normal activities
  • Hyperactivity or fidgeting
  • Persistent nightmares
  • Persistent disobedience or aggression
  • Frequent temper tantrums
  • Depression, sadness or irritability

According to the Global Minds, we need a new paradigm for mental health, and it should include family, community and system-level approaches to deal with the conditions plaguing our beautiful young ones. If you as a mother feel overwhelmed or need help for your child you can reach out to, Let’s Talk Mental Health Kenya


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