Ailing mental health system needs reform — medics

One in every four Kenyans may be suffering from a mental health problem

In Summary

• Kenya's entire public sector has only 106 psychiatrists 

• Estimates indicate 20-25 per cent of outpatients seeking primary healthcare present symptoms of mental illness

Mentally sick patients outside their wards in Mathare Hospital
NOT POSSESSED, JUST SICK: Mentally sick patients outside their wards in Mathare Hospital
Image: FILE

There is a dire need to reform the country’s ailing mental health system, medics have said.

Mental health experts estimate that one in every four Kenyans (10 per cent of the population) may be suffering from a mental health problem.

These range from a common disorder like depression and anxiety to severe disorders like psychosis, schizophrenia and bipolar disorders, alcohol and substance abuse problems among others. 


Among these conditions, clinical depression is said to be the most prevalent affecting an estimated four million Kenyans. 

Clinical depression is a mental health disorder characterised by persistently depressed mood or loss of interest in activities, causing significant impairment in daily life. 

Estimates indicate that 20-25 per cent of outpatients seeking primary healthcare present symptoms of mental illness at any one time.

Dr Simon Njuguna, a psychiatrist and the Director of Mental Health, says despite the high prevalence of mental disorders, only those with serious mental disorders receive any treatment. 

“You will be surprised many people who are CEOs, professionals, engineers and doctors suffer from one mental health condition or the other but they are not getting the necessary treatment,” Njuguna said on Monday.

“What we see at the market is as a result of neglect, by people not understanding and not having services and the support.” 

While the Mental Health Policy draft wants mental health attended to from the village level up to the national level comprising Mathari, KNH and Moi Teaching and Referral hospitals, the entire public sector only has 106 psychiatrists.  


 The situation is compounded by the pervasive culture of denial, silence and stigmatisation that surround mental health issues.

“What comes out strongly is not the prevalence but the impact. The magnitude of mental illness in this country is quite enormous. People with mental illness may live one or two decades less than the rest of the population,” Njuguna said.

According to the medic, every human being has a lifetime prevalence of 25 per cent to develop a mental health condition. 

This means that even if you don’t have a mental illness condition, you have 25 per cent chances that at one point you will develop a mental health condition.

“It should start from changing people’s attitudes and socio-cultural believes where people stop seeing mentally ill people, not as a curse or a form of demon possession but instead give them the care support and include them in the community.”

He said very few people with mental health illnesses are accessing services, mainly due to issues of stigma and lack of quality care.

A person with a mental health condition should enjoy all the privileges and rights like any other members of the family including inheritance of property, he said.

“There is a notion that such people are violent. We don’t take them to hospital for care and support and so they become homeless and we assume they are violent."

Edited by R.Wamochie 

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