I was about twelve years old when I first came across someone suffering from a mental illness. His name was John*. He was the most troublesome pupil in my class: moody, brash, rude, loud and hard to get along. Everybody despised him, including the teachers, who were determined to set him straight by the severity of the punishments they gave him for his unruly behaviour. But John never changed. If anything, he became worse with time.
None of us knew back then what was really going on with John. Not even his parents. In fact, it would take more than fifteen years for me to relate John’s behaviour to a mental illness. And who can blame me? Even though the education system taught me about the human anatomy and the diseases humans suffer from, nobody ever taught me about mental health. In my very uninformed mind, only two kinds of people existed: crazy people and normal people.
Would it surprise you if I told you that there are still some people who find the topic of mental health taboo? They feel its only a First World problem and that large corporations steal money from people by diagnosing them with nonexistent illnesses. Yet still, others assume its a type of curse (demon possession) if a child or an adult behaves a certain way.
It’s all far from the truth.
What is mental health?
MentalHealth.gov defines mental health as our emotional, psychological, and social well-being. It affects how we think, feel, and act. It is the ability to function effectively in daily activities, resulting in productivity at work and school, experiencing fulfilling relationships, and developing resilience to change and adversity.
The Mental Health Resource Guide for Individuals and Families (MHRGIF) defines a mental illness as;
A disease causing mild to significant disturbances in thinking, behaviour, and/or emotion resulting in an inability to cope with ordinary life challenges and routines.
Common mental conditions
- Bipolar disorder
Most common in children:
- Anxiety disorders
- Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).
The MHRGIF also contends that as with other health conditions, mental illnesses can be physical, emotional and psychological. Factors such as environmental stresses, genetic factors, biochemical imbalances, or a combination can be stressors behind such illnesses.
Kenya’s mental health status
According to the African Population and Health Research Center (APHRC);
In Africa, 5% of the population suffers from mental illnesses and the number is expected to rise to 15% by the year 2030. It is also estimated that at any given time, 10% of adults are experiencing a current mental disorder; and that 25% will develop one at some point during their lifetime. In Kenya, statistics indicate that one in four patients presenting to a primary health facility suffers from a mental illness.
Data from the Ministry of Health also shows that Up to 40% of in-patients in health facilities and another 25% of outpatients suffer from mental conditions. Another publication by the National Academy of Sciences also paints a clear picture of Kenya’s mental health status. In the publication dubbed Mental and Neurological Health Care in Kenya, it is stated that of the 44 million people living in Kenya, “mental disorders are a leading cause of years lived with the disability… behind only iron-deficient anaemia.” The publication further stipulates that;
In addition to common disorders such as depression and schizophrenia, Kenyans are at risk of other MNS disorders because of difficult conditions in the country: psychosis due to HIV infection, neuro-developmental disorders and epilepsy due to poor mother–child health, posttraumatic stress disorder due to terrorism and political tensions, and anxiety due to high poverty rates.
A common cause for such statistics is that there is very little mental health awareness amongst Kenyans. Most people exhibit symptoms of mental illness without even being aware. There is a dire need for people to be informed about mental health. This is to allow them to promptly identify symptoms when they occur and address them before they get out of hand.
How to discuss mental health with your family
1. Find the right time to have an in-depth conversation.
This conversation could be a result of certain observations you’ve made about yourself or your loved one. You don’t want to bombard someone with such a discussion at the wrong time and place. Find a time when both parties are free from inconveniences.
2. Outline areas of your life that might be potential stressors of mental illness.
This could be highly stressful, mentally and physically demanding jobs/careers, grief, a break-up, financial stress, challenges at school or relationships, etc. There are certain triggers in our day to day lives that might stress us beyond our limit. It’s important that we have someone to share our burdens with.
Parents need to dedicate time to discuss such issues with their children even when they might not seem overwhelming. Talking about things with our loved ones will help put them into the right perspective and lighten our burdens.
3. Have age appropriate and honest conversations with children
This one is for couples with children or those that have kids under their care. It could have something to do with mental issues that the adults are facing. Or, it could be relating to something that the children themselves are facing. The mental health of children is usually ignored due to the many developmental stages they go through. Symptoms are usually explained away and expected to disappear over time.
Unfortunately, some of them don’t naturally go away. They require professional attention. Therefore, whether it’s about addressing yours or the mental health of your children to them, it is best to seek guidance from those trained and equipped to deal with such. In as much as we would love to keep our children informed, it is important that we do so at the right time and in the right manner lest we overwhelm them.
4. Listen without judgement
Sometimes the only thing that our loved ones need is a listening ear. Rather than being quick to offer advise or voice our opinions, sometimes the best advice we can give is lending a listening ear, treating them with the utmost respect and care.
5. Educate yourself about the illness, symptoms, or mental condition
More than just lending a listening ear, the best thing we can do for our loved ones grappling with mental health is to educate ourselves about their condition, where they can get help and what tools or conditions are conducive to their well-being.
And how wonderful would it be if we did not wait to suffer from a mental illness or witness someone we love suffer to educate ourselves about mental health? It should start now.