Frank Njenga: I’m not about to slow down

Mental Health

Dr. Frank Njenga holds his 328-page book by Longhorn Publishers titled Healing the Mind: Conversations with Dr Frank Njenga 

Photo credit: FILE

What you need to know:

  • The psychiatrist is 72, has been married for 50 years, (“to one wife”, he asserts), has been in private practice since 1982 having retired from employment at the age of 32. He is a father of three and a grandfather of one
  • The psychiatrist says: “When President Kenyatta appointed me to be his advisor, he was following along the footsteps of his two predecessors. I was not surprised; I didn’t apply. In none of them (appointments) did I apply. 

People ask psychiatrist Frank Njenga all sorts of questions. From employers wondering why some job seekers these days bite their nails during interviews to people who wonder if they can take mental health advice from artificial intelligence-powered tools, the questions come from all angles.

“I misbehaved at an office party and might have made suggestive moves to my male boss. How do I redeem my reputation?”

“Do men also suffer post-birth depression?”

“How do I juggle a new job and a nagging wife whom I care so much for?”

“I am always anxious at work. Whenever I see the messenger carrying a white envelope, I break out in sweat, thinking I may have made a mistake.”

People’s concerns never stop heading the way of the doctor who has been in this field since 1979. He has seen some clients break down into tears before they finish explaining themselves. He has seen people who had given up hope turning their lives around.

He has seen people take tests and finally come to the conclusion that they indeed need help, which is often the starting point of therapy.

Some of the questions have been reaching him through his column in the Business Daily that runs on Mondays — a column that has been on for nearly 16 years.

The responses he has been giving through the column have now been compiled into a book that will be launched in Nairobi tomorrow.

In an interview with Lifestyle, he lets out one secret about his pieces on Business Daily.

“I write these articles only in the morning, early in the morning. My routine generally is that when I wake up, I do a bit of exercise. Immediately after I do exercise, my brain is sharp like a razor. I can do an article in half an hour maximum and it’s ready,” he says.

Also Read: Frank Njenga: ‘Over 40 years of healing the mind’
A strict timekeeper, he needs no one to say he is the chairman of the Chiromo Hospital Group, on whose headquarters we are having the interview. His chairmanship speaks for itself.

From the way, staff act when he is around and how they cling to his every word, his authority is unmistakable. He credits the success of the hospital, started in 1997, to the teams around him.

“It’s a very busy hospital. It’s a growing hospital. It’s run in the same way I have always run my life and in business in general: I have teams; I don’t work alone,” he says.

“There are 55 doctors who admit in this hospital, and more than 60 psychologists working, so, when you see me here, I am one of over 450 people who work (here).”
The doctor’s 328-page book by Longhorn Publishers is titled Healing the Mind: Conversations with Dr Frank Njenga.

Also Read: What employers need to know about staff depression
So, what did he tell the woman who said she made suggestive moves to her boss at a party?

“This incident that you went through tells me that you might be a child who behaved like a child. The most you can now do is accept it as such and put it in the bank of experiences that you will use to ensure you are not visited by such embarrassment again in the future,” said part of his response.

As for the employee who said they fret whenever they see a messenger with a white envelope, Dr Njenga advised that work-related stress is rampant at work, encouraging them to seek assistance.

“We must start by asking if the problem lies with you or with the people around you.

At the most basic level, are you sure you are qualified for the job that you are supposed to do? Are you perhaps one of those people who found their way to public or private companies through corridors of corruption?” Dr Njenga posed, “You clearly need help if the sight of a messenger with a white envelope causes you such great fear,” he concluded.

The two pieces of advice are among the many packed in the book, which is divided into 10 sections ranging from business management to work-life balance to millennials and family.

Reading the book, it is evident that Dr Njenga’s job demands that he blends his knowledge of the world with the scientific knowledge that saw him admitted as a member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists of the United Kingdom when he finished his studies in the 1970s.

At 72, married for five decades (“to one wife”, he asserts), in private practice since 1982 (he retired from employment at the age of 32), a father of three and a grandfather of one, Dr Njenga feels he has experienced the world in a lot of its many flavours.

“By the grace of God, I’m a man who has received some education many years ago,” he says, “ But that has not removed me from exercising my duty and responsibility in society as an elder.

I am now an old man who has experienced part of the State of Emergency, for example. My father was detained by the colonialists. I went to school during the Emergency. I started school in 1957.”

Over that time, he has also enjoyed close contact with three presidents, two of whom appointed him to various roles — without ever applying, he says.
“When I was the first African chair of the Nairobi Hospital’s medical advisory committee, (former president, the late Daniel arap) Moi came and helped me to raise money to build the accident and emergency department at the Nairobi Hospital.

And we sat with Moi like we are sitting with you here,” he says, drawing attention to a quiet visitors’ room where we are seated for the interview and all its expensive-looking seats, a refrigerator, an electric kettle, and the presidential portrait of former president Uhuru Kenyatta on the floor at one corner somewhere.

“Throughout his life actually, Moi is a man for whom I had profound respect. And I’d like to think it was mutual,” he adds.

“When Mr (Mwai) Kibaki (the late) became President, he appointed me. I didn’t apply, he just sent his people to look for me and I was made the chair of Nacada (National Authority for the Campaign against Alcohol and Drug Abuse). So, I was the chair of Nacada for eight years under Kibaki. He also appointed me to the university council,” adds Dr Njenga.

Dr Njenga was at the helm of Nacada until 2013 when Mr John Mututho, who had by then created stringent laws against alcohol consumption as an MP until March 2013, took over.

“When President Kenyatta appointed me to be his presidential advisor, he was following along the footsteps of his two predecessors in appointing me. I was not surprised; I didn’t apply. In none of them did I apply. I work for the people of Kenya. And even this book is written with the people of Kenya in mind,” he says.

“I’m a well-educated man, that’s not a secret. But I didn’t do this by myself. I am a product of the hard work of the taxpayers of Kenya who educated me for free from primary school to high school to post-graduate in university. So, this is my little way of paying back those people who sacrificed so much for me.... Any government that asks me to work for the people of Kenya, my answer is and will always be, I am tayari. I am ready, I am available for the people of Kenya,” he adds.

The Taskforce on Mental Health that Dr Njenga co-chaired after being appointed by Mr Kenyatta in 2019 recommended that mental health be declared a national health emergency.

Another recommendation read: “The happiness of Kenyans and their wellness should be monitored through a surveillance mechanism to conduct continuous monitoring and evaluation of mental health determinants and report on happiness index.”

The task force was formed due to a rise in murder and suicide cases that were linked to mental illness.
“Most of our recommendations are already implemented,” says Dr Njenga.

The 104-page task force report is one of the many publications Dr Njenga has played a part in developing.

Regarding the book to be launched tomorrow, Dr Njenga says it is a product of encouragement from Sunday Nation columnist John Kamau, who, as an editor with the Business Daily, “first saw the potential in compiling the weekly articles into a book” as he writes in the acknowledgement section of the publication.

“Some people have said that it’s an excellent handbook for students of psychology and counselling.

Others have said that every teacher must have a copy of this. Others have suggested that it’s a book for parents. Others have suggested that anybody who employs anybody must have a copy of this,” he tells Lifestyle.

“We have written this book in a way that most people will not have to go back to the dictionary to check what the words mean. We’ve used very simple, very straightforward language, ensuring that it’s not a technical book,” he adds.

When a reader mailed Dr Njenga to ask whether he can rely on artificial intelligence (AI) for psychiatry advice, his response – published in May this year – started thus: “One of the many medical maxims I hold to be true states, ‘Do not be the first to accept a new type of treatment, but also do not be the last to try the treatment.’”

He added: “The practice of mental health is always a work in progress and in your case, it might be a little soon for you to try untested treatments. Did you know that Kenya has as many as 170 psychiatrists, that 51 of them work for 26 different counties, while Mathari Hospital is now an excellent teaching and referral hospital? Before you put yourself in harm’s way, check out what is on offer in your locality.”

Lifestyle puts that question to him again, seeking to know whether he fears his job may be phased out by AI in the not-too-distant future.

“Not at all. I do not think that AI is anything to worry us. And I’ll tell you why I’m so confident that that’s not going to happen. Part of it is because I’m an old man and I have seen things,” he says and goes on to narrate how the masses initially opposed computers for fear that they would eliminate typing jobs and other occupations.

“I can tell you that man has always been scared about his own new inventions,” he notes, and adds, “There is no way ChatGPT can do the things that make us uniquely human. So, I am happy about ChatGPT and AI and all those clever things, machine learning, but I am not worried even one dot that they will replace me as a psychiatrist.”

Dr Njenga is also somehow impressed by the fact that younger people are going online to search for their mental health-related symptoms.

“(Young) people are able to go to Google and say, ‘I have insomnia’, ‘I have depression’, ‘I have anxiety and I have depression: Mr Google, what am I suffering from?’ And then most young people are able to say, ‘Oh, I’ve been diagnosed with a major depressive disorder.

Let me google mental health services near me.’ I mean, that has happened this (Tuesday October 3) afternoon. Young men and women come and say, ‘You know what, doc? I googled and I realised I have major depression. Then I went and looked for mental health services near me and your name popped up and I’m here,’” he says.

In the room where we have our interview, there is a large painting of Dr Njenga playing golf. He belongs to various golf clubs and he uses the sport to touch base with nature.

“I have played golf every Wednesday for the last 35 years,” he says.

“On the golf course, urbanites like myself are at their closest to nature. You are walking, the birds are singing, there’s green around you. Mostly, there is sunshine around you. I don’t have to justify why I play golf; I just play golf because I can.”

Dr Njenga was a guest speaker at the Nairobi International Book Fair two weeks ago.
“It is nonsense on stilts to say that Kenya does not have a reading culture. I saw thousands of men, women and children looking out for books and walking around and about books.

So, if you are not reading books, this is what I’d like to tell you as a Kenyan: you’re alone. The rest of us are reading books and becoming educated,” he says.