Road filled with challenges for mental health team

Mental health problems have been blamed for suicides. PHOTO | FOTOSEARCH

A team of experts on mental health begins its work amid challenges that have crippled efforts to keep the conditions at bay.

A chronic shortage of psychiatrists, inadequate funding and societal ignorance on mental health are some of the challenges the experts will have to deal with.

Last week, Health Cabinet Secretary Sicily Kariuki gave a green light to the National Mental Health Task Force to start its work. The team of experts was formed after President Uhuru Kenyatta called for it. Ms Kariuki said the team was supposed to “transform mental health systems to ensure the mental wellbeing of Kenyans at large”.

The team of experts, her post on Twitter read, “is mandated to assess the causes of the increase in mental ill-health occurrences and recommend transformative solutions to this nascent epidemic on behalf of Kenyan citizens”.

“We’re greatly concerned by the rising trend of suicide, acts of violence and the burden of mental health conditions. This task force is expected to assess the mental health systems, namely legal, policy and administrative environment to identify areas of reform.”

She urged them to consider the changes in the society which may exacerbate or trigger mental health problems as well as emerging issues such as gambling and cyberbullying.

Renowned psychiatrist Francis Njenga, doctors Syengo Mutisya and Mercy Karanja from Mathari National Teaching and Referral Hospital are part of the team.

Lukoye Atwoli, a professor of psychiatry, who is not part of the task force, said he welcomed the move. “The mental health of Kenyans is in a crisis and unless something serious is done, it is only going to get worse.”


A 2017 global report on mental health by the World Health Organisation showed that about 4.4 per cent of Kenyans — over two million people — have a mental problem of some sort.

Prof Atwoli raised concerns about the shortage of funding of mental health in Kenya which has paralysed services. “It is the money to train more personnel, run programmes such as suicide prevention, screening for young people in schools, run mental health campaigns. There is a lot that needs to be done,” said Prof Atwoli in an interview with HealthyNation.

The Kenya Health Workforce report indicated that there were only 71 psychiatrists in the country, a majority of whom are in private practice. The numbers are not promising for psychiatric nurses in Kenya.

To surmount the challenge of fewer healthcare workers, a senator had proposed a bill that would delegate the management of mentally ill people in hospitals, such as admission and discharging, to psychologists — mental health practitioners who do not have medical degrees.

Psychiatrists were opposed to the suggestion. Then, psychiatrist Susan Hinga told HealthyNation: “Sometimes a patient may look depressed, but maybe it is the thyroid hormones that are low and only a doctor can tell that difference not a psychologist.”

The negative perception of mental health in Kenya has not helped the situation as it affects data collection and whether families or individuals will seek medical attention.

The Kenya National Bureau of Statistics reported in 2018 that 421 deaths were as a result from suicide, but experts are worried that the actual number may be ten times more: people do not report suicide deaths because attempting suicide is illegal in Kenya, and comes with a lot of stigma.

The mental health fraternity has been battling to have suicide decriminalised as it is a disease.