Horace Mann, a nineteenth century American educationist, is quoted as saying: “A human being does not attain his full heights until he is educated.” Education can be defined as the process of receiving or giving systematic instruction especially at school or university. Almost all of us attend these institutions to pursue education, but as various reports suggest and everyday behaviour is displays, many of us seem to lack the fruit of education, that is, the habits and morals needed for a decent society. One problem the education system faces is the raw material given to it by society and the health system; one third of children grow up stunted due to chronic malnutrition. Even the best teacher with every resource available will struggle to produce with such material. But there are still the two-thirds of the population who are normal. Why are they unable to impose the benefits of good education on society? Demography gives one answer. Half our population is made up of persons under 19 years of age. Free primary education started just over 10 years ago and relatively few make it to university, so an educated Kenyan adult is rare.
To compound the situation, most people have a degree of natural fear when exposed to heights especially when there is little protection. Either side of the norm, we have people who will walk across a rope tied between two cliffs with no fear at all, such people are said to have a ‘head for heights’; while on the other side there are those who even the height of a pavement can send them into a panic attack, the medical term is ‘acrophobia’. Fear of heights has to be separated from vertigo, where a person gets a spinning sensation, when one is not actually spinning. Symptoms too are a little different. The person suffering from acrophobia will have a feeling of uncontrollable anxiety when exposed to heights. They have physical symptoms of stress such as rapid breathing, thumping heartbeat and sweating. They are unable to function normally under such situations and exhibit avoidance behaviour, which can be exaggerated in order to not get themselves into such a powerless situation. In the case of children they can cry uncontrollably, cling to parents or even throw tantrums. Up to five per cent of the population suffer some degree of acrophobia with women affected more than men.
The cause of acrophobia is not known. However like other phobias the environment we grow up in shapes what we fear. If our parents are scared of heights, then their stories are likely to influence our future behaviour. Acrophobia often develops early in life. An 80-year old man is unlikely start having a fear of heights at that age, having lived till then without fear. Women are more likely to talk about their fears, perhaps because it is not masculine, for a man to have a fear seemingly without cause. The major problem with acrophobia is that in the extreme it can lead to social isolation and depression.
There is no specific laboratory test to confirm acrophobia. Diagnosis is based on careful history taking by the doctor, who needs to exclude any other possible cause of the symptoms being experienced. For the diagnosis to be made the symptoms need to consistently and immediately happen when the person is exposed to heights. When symptoms are severe enough to affect the quality of life then drugs can be given that suppress some of the symptoms experienced. Beta-blockers are drugs that block the effects of adrenaline in the body. The increased heart rate, sweating, shallow breathing and increased blood pressure are slowed down by beta-blockers. Some patients may need antidepressants. In addition behaviour therapy can be effective. Getting the patient desensitised by gradual repeated exposure might help. Cognitive behavioural therapy involves working with a therapist to have another view of the issue so that the association between exposure and the symptoms is broken and replaced by different beliefs.
A person with acrophobia limits their exposure to the environment in order to avoid encountering a situation where they might not be in control. This in a way contradicts the whole point of education, which is to equip a person with the skills and knowledge to navigate through the environment both social and physical. Society is much the poorer, when on the one side we have chronic malnutrition and then on the other sider we have educated people who behave as if they have acrophobia.