mental health in Kenya
The Kenyan Ministry of Health is training health workers to aid communities with high rates of mental health disorders. [ Photo / Gertrude's Children Home ]

Mental Health in Kenya: The alarming severity of COVID-19 has led to an unfortunate increase in mental health disorders globally. Fundamental changes in lifestyle, relationships, and other important parts of livelihood all have the potential to influence mental health, and this is especially true in some areas more than others.

While the future looks promising – vaccines, for instance, bring back the economic and personal benefits that come along with tourism – changes in mental health brought on or exacerbated by significant life events like the pandemic typically require deliberate effort to address.

Certain countries are struggling with mental health more than others. With a population of over 47 million people, Kenya is a prime example of a nation uniquely impacted not just by the pandemic, but one with general trends that suggest mental health concerns are on the rise.

Understanding why mental health disorders may be more prominent in Kenyan communities, what resources are available to those who need them, and governmental responses to such changes are all important parts of inspiring future change. While some steps have been taken, there’s still a long way for the nation to go.

Mental health concerns and disorders can take all shapes and forms, and they can sometimes be hard to distinguish from “normal” behavior. For more information on what mental illness may look like as well as tools to help you better understand specific symptoms, click here. (Note that online resources such as these are informative, but do not and should never replace the diagnosis and care of a mental health professional).

Mental Health Concerns and Statistics

Among Kenyans, depression and anxiety disorders are the leading mental health illnesses, followed by substance use disorders. Alcohol is the most commonly used substance in cases involving substance use disorders. This type of issue is especially prevalent in groups of 18 to 29 year olds across the nation.

Officials in Kenya report that COVID-19 may have played a role in the increase of cases of mental illness; the consequences of the pandemic are, of course, ongoing, and therefore hard to fully understand.

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According to the Cabinet Secretary of the Ministry of Health, Muthai Kagwe, Kenya has a bed capacity of 1,600 for mental health care. Some 400 of these beds are located in private mental care facilities.

However, this contrasts with the 1.9 million people in the nation who are affected by depression in some form or another. Thus, depression is a serious issue that deserves and needs more political and social attention.

Depression

Various factors, including health, psychosocial disability, and premature mortality due to lack of access to mental health care facilities all contribute to the high rates of mental illnesses, including depression, in Kenya.

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Another important potential cause (or contributing factor) of depression is the fact that societal stigma is especially high in many Kenyan communities, especially for men. The so-called “burden of masculinity,” or the idea that men must not focus on emotion or are weak if they do, can be and is very damaging to both mental health and self-esteem.

Other factors like financial struggles, abuse within family systems, and other personal struggles can also be responsible for worsened mental health.

Because depression tends to cause symptoms that can be perceived as “laziness” (low energy or motivation, anti-social behavior, a lack of interest in participating in even activities that used to be enjoyable, etc.) it can be especially difficult to not just recognize symptoms for what they are, but seek help for them.

While depression is a common mental illness that impacts many Kenyans, it is certainly not the only one.

Anxiety and Loneliness

Along with depression, 61% percent of Kenyans feel lonely, 52% feel helpless, and 33% report feeling angry.

Additionally, a majority of the Kenyan population associate mental health or its issues, such as depression and anxiety, with negative narratives. This general consensus leads to low focus on the importance of mental health and tends to alienate those who experience chronic symptoms.

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Anxiety disorders are incredibly common worldwide, and they tend to connect to other mental illnesses, especially depression. In fact, the two can worsen each other – anxiety can make an individual feel distress over a lack of energy, for instance, or even more afraid to reach out for professional help.

However, and fortunately, the Kenyan government is striving to combat mental health through various services.

What is being done to address these concerns?

As of 2019, the Kenyan government is helping improve the country’s mental health in the following ways:

  • The government is prioritizing mental health care and knowledge via the Mental Health Policy, and the implementation of a presidential directive on policy responses to mental health issues also has potential to make serious changes.
  • The Kenyan Ministry of Health is training health workers to aid communities with high rates of mental health disorders. By providing more health care workers to Kenyans, the government is also trying to make healthcare more accessible to as many people as possible.
  • To further improve access to mental health services, the Ministry of Health will work to provide universal health care for the entirety of Kenya, which removes many of the barriers that have existed to prevent those who need mental health care from receiving it in the past.

Final Thoughts

Kenya’s efforts in improving access to mental health and training more people to help others get through their day are incredible, but it’s also very important to acknowledge the reason these concerns tend to exist in the first place.

Kenya is not the only nation that likely requires significant change to fully address mental health concerns, but this process tends to take time.

Fortunately, more resources are available both in-person and online than ever to address mental health concerns; everyone should have easy access to mental health care services, even long after the pandemic is over.

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