HEALTHCARE

Mr President, mental health is a waiting disaster

Millions of young Kenyans (who make up 76 per cent of the population) and struggle to meet basic needs are exposed to mental disorder triggers

In Summary

• A 2015 performance audit report showed there were only 92 psychiatrists in the country instead of the 1,533 required and 327 psychiatrist nurses instead of 7,666.

•  For the three financial years — 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 —Mathari Hospital was provided only about 30 per cent of the funds allocated under the recurrent expenditure and nothing under the development expenditure.

Emotional well-being will remain stuck until proper policies are in place
Emotional well-being will remain stuck until proper policies are in place

Dear President Uhuru Kenyatta,

My name is Dannish Odongo but some people call me Son of Kano. First, allow me to congratulate you for fulfilling your word when you approved the establishment of Mathari National Teaching and Referral Hospital.

You further directed the Ministry of Health to establish a task force (whose composition we hope will be representative and inclusive) on the status of mental health in Kenya and develop new policies to address the growing concerns about this issue among Kenyans. The findings of the task force, you said, will assist the government in the allocation of resources to mental health.

As a young person in Kenya with a lived experience and passion about good governance, I couldn't be happier than reading news about the fulfillment of your 56th Madaraka Day speech in Narok stadium. What people who may not be familiar with Kenya’s mental health landscape don't know is that Mathari Hospital, the only psychiatric hospital of its caliber in Kenya, operates under a department in the Ministry of Health.

Making it a national referral hospital means it’s going to provide specialised healthcare and will operate with a defined level of autonomy, including a board and a CEO. This is a game-changer for mental health advocates in Kenya who’ve been decrying its neglect.

Before I go further, let me tell you a short personal story and why the news is exciting:

On December 18, 2018, I made a casual visit to Dr Frank Njenga’s clinic in Upper Hill. Apart from persistent insomnia, I was as fit as a fiddle. That visit led to a series of diagnoses of mental health disorders, including depression. Upon examination, I was admitted to Bustani, a state-of-the-art mental health hospital in Lavington. Admitted for six days, I left the hospital on December 24 a changed man and started my journey to recovery. Words alone cannot describe how incredible the journey has been.

Apart from becoming a better person, my perspectives have been refined (I also wrote a book out of the experience (Unbreakable: A story of resilience and finding beauty in depression) and I’d love to share a copy with you). Also, little did I know that the admission was going to change the trajectory of my career. Before the diagnosis, I was an active journalist who thrived in telling development stories. I was also a political commentator and a researcher busy making the nation better. If you told me that I would also become a mental health advocate, I would have laughed but here we are.

This year, I dedicated most of my time to understand the correlation between mental health and the state of the country. The information I’ve collected is mind-blowing. If it wasn't for the recovery journey, I would have done a submission to the BBI task force on the role mental health can play in building a unified country.

I still count myself privileged to have gotten medical attention in an excellent private hospital, ability to afford private insurance, know where to go when symptoms arose and get treated by Dr Njenga.

Your excellency, perhaps you already know that millions of young Kenyans (Who make up 76 per cent of the population) and struggle to meet basic needs are exposed to mental disorder triggers stemming from the difficult economic times. Even though steps are being made to address gaps in quality primary healthcare  — Universal Healthcare — you know challenges still remain. Add the lack of specialised mental healthcare and we are talking about a disaster.

For example, a 2015 performance audit report from the Office of the Auditor General on the state of mental health showed there were only 92 psychiatrists in the country instead of the 1,533 required and 327 psychiatrist nurses instead of 7,666.

 “While it’s expected that a psychiatrist should serve 30,000 citizens, currently a psychiatrist is serving about half a million citizens," the report said.

For the three financial years — 2013-14, 2014-15 and 2015-16 —Mathari Hospital was provided only about 30 per cent of the funds allocated under the recurrent expenditure and nothing under the development expenditure.

Of the 47 counties, only 25 have psychiatric units. Even in the 25 counties where the services are available, they are pledged with the challenge of outdated equipment, inadequate stocks for essential drugs and insufficient personnel to treat mentally ill patients.

To fix the above, Mr President, we need better policies.

 

Odongo is a mental health advocate