Coming to terms with my mother’s mental health challenges

From setting herself ablaze to disappearing from home, depression and schizophrenia stole the best years of a veteran policewoman’s life.


What you need to know:

  • From setting herself ablaze to disappearing from home, depression and schizophrenia broke a veteran policewoman’s life.
  • But all is not lost, nearly two years later, she has returned to work. She has come to terms with her illness and understands that she will have to take medication for the rest of her life — two pills daily, to be precise.

I have always been passionate about mental health. Little did I know that this passion was preparing me for a journey I never imagined I would embark on — becoming a caregiver for my mother, a veteran police officer. 

The journey began in February 2021 when my mother, who had served as a police officer for more than 30 years, was promoted. Instead of rejoicing, she was filled with apprehension about the mandatory refresher training that she was supposed to undergo. In her youth, she had trained diligently, but now, many years later, the prospect of undergoing the same rigorous exercises filled her with dread. 

One afternoon many years ago, while gathering firewood, she fell into a ditch. She was stoic, choosing to bear her pain in silence. In 2004, she sought medical help for severe back pain and was found to have suffered a fracture from that old, unspoken fall. Her duties as a police officer were reduced. 

Fast forward to 2021. Despite my plea for her to avoid the refresher course, my mother feared the loss of her promotion if she failed to attend. So, with mixed feelings, she reported to the training college.

However, four days into the training, physical demands began to take a toll on her. On the fifth day, she called me, her voice wracked with pain. I promised her I would get her out of the college. 

Luckily, her boss agreed to review her medical documents.

Returning to the college days later, I was aghast to see women, many of them my mother's age, performing strenuous physical tasks. Their distress was palpable, and the harsh commands from the much younger officers felt like salt on an open wound. 

Thanks to the senior officer, my mother was released from the training college. But the woman I picked up from the college was a different person — low in spirit and seemingly lost in her thoughts. I decided she should stay with me for a while even though she was worried about being marked absent from her station. I managed to convince her to wait for my father so they could travel back home together.

However, the morning before my father arrived, my mother started to hallucinate and soon collapsed. In a panic, we rushed her to hospital, where health workers stabilised her and prescribed medication to calm her down as we planned to see a doctor. My father decided they should travel back to their work station and consult a doctor there.

As they left for their workplace, I was scheduled to interview a prominent politician on the subject of mental health. As I absorbed the politician's narrative, detailing her personal struggle with depression and bipolar disorder, I found myself drawing parallels with my mother. The symptoms the politician described were disturbingly similar to those my mother was exhibiting.

After the interview, it was clear to me — my mother was likely suffering from depression. Without delay, I called my father, urging him to make arrangements for consultation with a psychologist. 

Two days later, I received a disturbing call from my mother. She sounded disoriented and unhappy. I asked my father to stay with her until they could see a doctor. The following day she refused to speak to me, a deviation from our family norm. I knew something was wrong.

On the scheduled day of their hospital visit, my father woke up and asked my mother to get ready as he also started preparing. However, when he finished and made his way to the living room, he was met with the sight of my mother darting out of the gate. He ran after her, but she had already hopped on a motorcycle and sped off. 

Eventually, he made the decision to return home and wait for her.

Two hours later, her phone was switched off. When I called my father that evening, he made no mention of the fact that he had lost track of my mother's whereabouts. 

As a high-ranking police officer, he used his resources to have her phone number traced, but the location he was provided with was seemingly in the middle of nowhere. The next morning, officers were dispatched to aid in her search. 

Fortunately, my mother showed up at a colleague's shop in town. She sat down and ordered a cold soda. Knowing that she was being sought, her colleague immediately called my father. He rushed to the location and found her casually sipping her soda, seemingly oblivious to the frantic search her disappearance had initiated. 
My father brought her back home, assuring her that he would accompany her to the hospital. From his observations, it seemed as if she was fearful of something or someone; she kept peeping through the window, looking for signs of any outsider in the compound despite the fact that she and dad lived alone.

In her account, she had fled because she had received warnings from two individuals about a looming threat to her safety. This led her to feel an unsettling sense of insecurity in her own home. 

One Sunday evening as they were relaxing at home, my mother left my father outside and went into the house. As he sat there, the smell of petrol wafted towards him. Turning towards the house, he was met with a sudden flash of light from the window — my mother was ablaze. He rushed to the door only to find it locked from the inside. 

Despite the chaos, my mother managed to unlatch one of the locks, which made it possible for my father to force the door open and reach her. By then she had collapsed on the floor, a flame flickering on her cheek. My father smothered the flames. He immediately called for help and she was taken to the hospital, unconscious. 

You might wonder where the petrol came from. Where we live, snakes are a menace and a common measure to keep them out of the house is to pour petrol around the home. The petrol my mother had used was left over from their most recent snake-deterrence exercise.


For two days, my father withheld the news from my brother and I. My instincts were gnawing at me during this time. I knew something was amiss with my mother, but my father insisted it was merely the effect of the antidepressants she had been prescribed. 

Eventually, after a few days of restless uncertainty, I decided to travel home and get the truth for myself. As soon as we got off the bus, we were escorted to the hospital to visit mum.

Our arrival coincided with her being cleaned up. As soon as I entered her room, the sight overwhelmed me and I fainted. 

I woke up to the news that my mother had set herself on fire. The news hit me like a punch in the gut. I rushed to her side and for the next 14 days, I stayed with her in hospital, my heart breaking each time her wounds were cleaned. The saddest part of all this is that to date, my mother does not remember her stay in the hospital. 

She was eventually discharged from the hospital, but the requirement was that her wounds needed to be cleaned every morning. Given that we lived far from the hospital and the condition of the roads was poor, we decided to hire a nurse who could come to our home each morning to perform this duty.

However, my father was taking an unusually long time to make arrangements for the nurse and I found myself stepping into the role. The experience was heart-wrenching; I could feel mum’s pain and it shattered me. Each time after cleaning her wounds, I would retreat to my room and cry, overcome with sorrow.

One day I reached my breaking point and confessed to my father that I couldn't bear it any longer. It was then that I realised the impact my mother's condition was having on my own mental well-being.

Eventually, we arranged for a nurse to tend to mum. 

Given the circumstances of the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent work-from-home mandates, I was able to stay with mum for about two months.

Those two months were challenging. I had grown up perceiving my mother as a pillar of strength and her profession as a police officer only amplified this perception. However, her illness had engendered an uncharacteristic fear within her. 

She often seemed lost in her thoughts and when she was present, she appeared fearful. She would engage in conversations with seemingly nobody, although when questioned, she claimed that she was talking to two other people. Her independence was drastically reduced, leading her to seek permission for basic activities like taking a shower, eating and going to bed. Witnessing this transformation was a heartbreaking experience for me. 

During this entire period, we had not been able to get my mother to see a mental health specialist. First, there were none available where we lived. Second, her doctor had advised us to allow her physical wounds to heal before we could travel to Nairobi, where I wished for her to consult a specialist. 

In the midst of all this, her family members insisted that I take her to a religious leader to pray for her, attributing her situation to witchcraft. Their assumption infuriated me, but at the same time, I made the decision to go with her to one of these prayer meetings.

My hope was to disprove their belief and convince them to allow me to take my mother to the hospital.

Through all this, my father was open to every suggestion. I believe he was desperate to see his wife return to her normal self. They had been together for over three decades and it pained him to see her in such a state. Despite this, as a father, he remained a pillar of strength for us. 

I was grateful that I was there to support him through this challenging ordeal. Once I had managed to disprove my mother's family's assumptions, we made the decision to take her to see a specialist.

We travelled together to Nairobi, where we visited Chiromo Hospital and were subsequently referred to a psychiatrist. 

After a consultation with a psychiatrist based at Chiromo Hospital, Bustani, my mother was diagnosed with schizophrenia and depression.

The challenge was explaining the concept of mental illness to her.

Fortunately, due to the lockdown imposed by Covid-19, we were able to stay at home with her and explain to her the condition. 

In no time at all, we began to notice a positive change in my mother. She started smiling more and occasionally even cracked a few jokes.

Now nearly two years later, she has returned to work. She has come to terms with her illness and understands that she will have to take medication for the rest of her life — two pills daily, to be precise.

One truly heartwarming change is that she is often the one who reminds my father to replenish the medication supply when it's nearing its end.

 - Narrated to Amina Wako   [email protected]

What is depression?
Depression is a mental health disorder characterised by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness and a loss of interest or pleasure in activities. It is more than just a passing bout of sadness; it is a prolonged state of emotional and psychological distress that can significantly impact a person’s daily functioning and overall quality of life.

Depression is characterised by persistent feelings of sadness, hopelessness and loss of interest. Symptoms include persistent sadness, loss of interest, appetite changes, sleep disturbances, fatigue, worthlessness, difficulty concentrating, restlessness and thoughts of death or suicide.

Depression’s severity can vary from mild to severe. It is caused by a combination of genetic, biological, environmental and psychological factors. Risk factors include traumatic events, chronic stress, neurotransmitter imbalances and certain medical conditions.

Causes of depression
Biological factors: Brain chemistry, genetics and hormonal imbalances.

Psychological factors: Personality traits, trauma and stressors.

Medical conditions: Chronic pain, cancer, heart disease, hormonal disorders.

Medications and substance abuse: Side effects of certain medications, substance abuse.

Family and social environment: Family history, dysfunctional environment, lack of support.

Co-occurring mental health disorders: Anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders, substance use disorders.

Possible treatments for depression

Psychotherapy: Talk therapy to address underlying causes and develop coping strategies.

Medications: Antidepressants (SSRIs, SNRIs, TCAs) to regulate mood-related brain chemicals.

Brain Stimulation Therapies: ECT, TMS, VNS for individuals unresponsive to medications or therapy.

Lifestyle changes: Regular exercise, balanced diet, sufficient sleep, stress reduction, social support.

Supportive relationships: Building a strong support system with family, friends, or support groups.

What is schizophrenia?

Schizophrenia is a chronic and severe mental disorder that affects how a person thinks, feels, and behaves. It is characterised by a range of symptoms that can significantly impact an individual’s daily functioning and their ability to understand reality. People with schizophrenia often experience a combination of hallucinations, delusions, disorganised thinking and speech, lack of motivation, reduced emotional expression and difficulty in organising thoughts and making logical connections.

Delusions are false beliefs that are not based on reality. People with schizophrenia may have delusions that others are plotting against them, that they have special powers or abilities, or that their thoughts are being controlled by external forces.

Hallucinations involve experiencing sensations that are not real. The most common type of hallucination in schizophrenia is hearing voices that others do not hear. These voices may comment on the person’s actions or thoughts or provide a running commentary on their behaviour.

Possible treatment options for schizophrenia:

Antipsychotic medications: Primary treatment to reduce hallucinations, delusions and other psychotic symptoms.

Psychosocial interventions: Therapy and supportive services to manage symptoms and improve functioning.

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy : Identifying and changing negative thinking and behaviour patterns.

Family therapy: Enhancing family understanding, communication and support.

Social skills training: Developing and improving social and interpersonal skills.

Supported employment/education: Assisting with finding and maintaining employment or education.

Individual therapy: One-on-one sessions to explore thoughts, emotions, and experiences related to schizophrenia.

— By  Sakina Kalyan, clinical psychologist, Ardent Psychological Center