Let next regime prioritise mental health

Mental health

People living with HIV are disproportionally affected by mental illnesses, including depression, stress, anxiety disorders .

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The World Bipolar Day, marked every March 30, was set aside to raise awareness of and eliminate the social stigma associated with a mental disorder that affects 46 million people. The theme this year was “Bipolar Together”.

The US National Institute of Mental Health and Human Services defines bipolar disorder (formerly called manic-depressive illness or manic depression), as a “mental disorder that causes unusual shifts in mood, energy, activity levels, concentration, and the ability to carry out day-to-day tasks”.

It is reported that 11.5 million Kenyans, or one in every four, have experienced mental illness. Common mental health issues include disorders due to substance abuse, neurotic and personality disorders, as well as dementia.

However, Kenya has limited resources for those struggling with mental health issues. It has 54 psychiatrists, 418 trained psychiatric nurses, 10 medical social workers and very few psychologists for a population of about 47 million, four per cent of whom are likely to suffer from a major mental disorder.

But that attracts little attention, seeing as the mental healthcare system remains a low policy and budget priority. Besides, very few political aspirants even have mental health in their manifesto.

Prioritising resource allocation for mental health services in the country is often a challenge due to competing health priorities. That is why politicians need to urgently take the initiative of championing mental health as they campaign for election on August 9. Instead, they prioritise other issues and ignore the state of the mental healthcare system, an area of massive concern.

Mental health and well-being has been neglected for a long time as our leaders spend most of their time and energy trying to fix the economy. The country has a measure of success in dealing with both but, in the past couple of years, the need for a good economy with commensurate mental health has become clear.

Of late, we have witnessed an unprecedented number of individuals and families adversely affected by poor mental health. Barely a day passes without a report of a family that has been thrown into grief either because a kin’s death by suicide or an act of domestic violence blamed on mental disorder has occurred.

This is the ticking time bomb that Kenyans are sitting on. And it sets a challenge to the forthcoming government. The political candidates will need to go an extra mile of devising pragmatic reforms to improve our mental healthcare system.

Mental health is everyone’s business and all candidates must promote it in their individual capacity. The growing political stability and burgeoning economic prosperity bode well for improvement of healthcare with substantial investment in capacity building for mental health.

Jackson Ngari & Maxwell Kamau, Migori

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