The mental health wave

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What you need to know:

  • Statistics show that about 40 per cent of university students are suffering from mental health challenges.
  • It was only last year that a Mental Health Bill was proposed, and it is yet to be passed into law.
  • The silent pandemic, whose victims are often labelled ‘crazy’ or ‘deranged’, is described by Very Well Mind, a mental health-themed organisation based in the United States, as the emotional, psychological and social wellbeing of a person.

Mental health as an issue had been neglected for long despite it being a debilitating challenge for many young people. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), about one in every four persons who seek medical help in Kenya suffers from a mental health condition.

The silent pandemic, whose victims are often labelled ‘crazy’ or ‘deranged’, is described by Very Well Mind, a mental health-themed organisation based in the United States, as the emotional, psychological and social wellbeing of a person. It affects how we think, feel, and act, and determines how we handle stress, relate to others and make choices.

Statistics show that the mental state of the country’s youth is fast deteriorating, yet the government is yet to delve deeper into this salient issue. It was only last year that a Mental Health Bill was proposed, and it is yet to be passed into law.

To mark this mental health awareness month, MyNetwork had a chat with five young Gen Zs who share their thoughts and approaches to mental health.

Sharon Mwangi, 20
Psychology student, University of Nairobi

I think of mental health as the wellness of one’s mind. As a university student, my state of mind is hugely affected by lack of a vibrant social life. I rarely interact with fellow students after lectures because I am very introverted and shy.

I am in a pit of desolation owing to childhood traumas. I was sexually assaulted as a young girl and I am still trying to heal. I also feel the raw pain of losing my mother every day.

Whenever I notice the tell-tale signs which include feeling empty, sleeping in a lot, feeling tired almost all the time for no good reason and frequent bouts of insomnia, as well as loss of appetite, I know that my mental health is on the rocks.

I find solace in journaling, calling close friends and creating animations. I have also had sessions with a counsellor and visited a therapist on a number of occasions.

I don’t think our parents or members of their generation really understand when we say we are not mentally OK. This is because they grew up in a different time and back then, mental health issues were rarely talked about.

Few of them see mental health as an important issue. If you tell them you have anxiety, they will just reply with a rude “get over it”. Mostly they will just make jokes about your sad mood oblivious of the fact that you could be suffering from clinical depression.

To a young person who is in a bad space in terms of mental wellbeing, I would suggest that they take a keen interest in finding a solution either through speaking to someone or journaling. Looking after our mental health is imperative because the mind controls the general functioning of our body and soul.

Photo credit: Pool

Matthew Samuel Konani, 22
Accounting student, Presbyterian University Students Association

According to statistics that I have access to as the secretary general of our university’s students’ association, about 40 per cent of students in our campus are negatively affected by mental health challenges.

I would describe mental health as the conscious ability of one to make the right decision at the right time regardless of what he or she might be going through.

The biggest cause of mental illness among students is insufficient funds to live on amid the rising cost of living.

Wouldn’t a student be super stressed if they could only afford one meal in a day?

There is also the issue of peer pressure occasioned mostly by the need for some students to be in a romantic relationship. If a comrade fails to find love, they often end up being heartbroken, which could affect their studies. 

In campus, depression is quite common, and many feel helpless, as if they have no control over the things happening around them.

I have been depressed before. Last year, after being suspended by the university after accusations of malpractice at the finance department, I suffered severe anxiety for the three months I was away from school. I felt low and useless, as if my life had stagnated. I was unwilling to share how I felt with anyone as I feared they would misunderstand or judge me.

Whenever a young person, especially a man, discloses what they are going through, they are often viewed as weak. So, most of us prefer to literally die with our problems.

It took the intervention of my mother who noticed how meaningless life had become for me after getting suspended. She was the one who plucked me away from the tentacles of depression just before things got worse.

In our university, students hold open barazas and organise forums where we discuss issues affecting us. We have an office of student affairs where a student can visit and share their problems and if we are unable to resolve the issue, we forward it to the university counsellor.

I think mental health awareness should be taught to students from as early as primary school.

Photo credit: Pool

Joan Nyawira Mwangi, 19
Engineering student, Kenyatta University

I believe mental health is anchored on emotional maturity. I would say mental wellbeing is the ability to be in full control of your feelings and behavior in different situations.

I have previously suffered depression majorly due to family issues. It was a tough period and I used to cry a lot because I had no one to turn to. My step family used to treat me so harshly and I would constantly feel left out. I wasn’t eating, sleeping or bathing. I was withdrawn from everyone and mostly kept to myself. My thoughts were the loudest thing in my room. This lasted seven long months.

It was so bad that whenever someone approached, I would sense danger and immediately conclude that they wanted to hurt me. I had to run away to my uncle who became my savior.

After that crisis, I started becoming more outgoing, talking to people and even attending social events.

I avoid being alone as it triggers negative thoughts that might lead me to being depressed.

My other triggers are worries about my financial and social status. 

A close friend recently got heartbroken and felt so low that he wasn’t able to do anything. He just sat like a zombie. I feel like relationships are the number one cause of mental health illness among students. For fear of being judged, most of them cannot share their issues.

But there is power in reaching out. A problem shared is half solved. You can’t miss out even a single person who can listen to your problem. 

Older people don’t understand why we are so obsessed with taking care of our mental wellbeing. I have in the past shared my relationship challenges with an aunt and she told me I am rushing in life. She did not consider that love gone sour could weigh me down emotionally.

Photo credit: Pool

Okello Eugine, 20
Petroleum Engineering student, Kenyatta University

Is there any young person who is not constantly worried about what the future holds for them? I would define mental illness as a state of being disturbed psychologically despite one’s attempts to find peace of mind.

I have been depressed a number of times. Most recently, I was stressed about finances. I had no money to support myself and this really took a toll on my mental wellness. I lacked motivation to even attend classes. I was anxious as I knew not how to pull myself out of the financial crunch.

Worsening the situation was my student leadership role where I met students who frequently shared their own problems while overlooking the fact that I may have my own problems.

I have seen enough of how relationship and money issues are negatively impacting students’ mental wellbeing.

Most of the students are suffering in silence. They prefer not to talk about their problems publicly because there is stigma surrounding mental health.

For instance, a lady friend is sinking into depression due to lack of fees, but she doesn’t want to share her problem because she fears judgement.

As young people, mental health challenges affect us so much because we have developed a culture of isolation and when push comes to shove, we share our personal affairs on social media – to total strangers who end up judging us. 

I believe it is high time my mates started opening up about their problems. Once you’ve shared something, the burden somehow lightens. Luckily, in our university, we have a mental health and peer counselling society that has been instrumental in lending an ear to the challenges students face. 

Personally, I don’t like postponing a problem. I often accept the situation, then work towards solving it. I have no qualms sharing the problem and then engaging in activities that can offer positive distraction to keep myself from overthinking. I have, in many instances, taken myself out for lunch just to calm my mind.

Photo credit: Pool

Brian Osano, 23
Guidance and counselling graduate, Moi University

The subject of mental health is now getting the attention it deserves but there is lack of intentionality. There is no tangible policy that has been enacted to safeguard the millions suffering from this endemic.

Most youths I interact with suffer from lack of self-identity which is key in mental health. Low self-esteem mostly stems from lack of self-understanding.

I learnt from psychology that this could be due to childhood traumas. According to experts, our early childhood days define how we view the world, and they define our lives as adults. For instance, children who are raised in abusive families and are neglected when young end up being dysfunctional adults. 

Today, most young people are battling psychological issues. The rates of depression and suicide among university students are worrying.

I think the early 20s are very delicate years as we struggle to shape our future. This comes at a price we sometimes pay with our mental well-being. The prefrontal lobe, which helps one perceive the world and explore the aspects of maturity, takes up to 25 years to fully develop. 

As young people, we are trying to question everything and at the same time find answers that are in touch with our feelings. This is different for our parents who, whilst growing, were fully focused on school and had few other issues to deal with.

Before joining campus, I had unresolved childhood traumas that terrorised me.

What made things worse was that I had no support system. I felt alone but I wasn’t going to sulk in self-pity so I strived to better myself and come to terms with the issues, which revolved around my family.

To take care of my mental health, I do poetry, writing and also take nature walks. As a mental health advocate, I run a blog that tackles mental health by telling stories of fellow students undergoing tough moments so that others can be inspired and informed. 

For a long time, I was not someone who shared their problems, but I am now learning to speak up whenever I am going through something difficult and energy sapping. I now have a community of friends and we actually talk about our problems as the youth. 

I think our parents should stop referring anyone with a mental health problem to Mathari Hospital. They should understand that we deal with different problems and that with the right care and guidance, one can heal from mental health without going to hospital.

Mental health should be a matter of national concern. I believe more than 70 per cent of the population needs to go to therapy because we face many challenges.

Think about a balloon. There is a point where the rubber can no longer stretch, no matter how much more air you pump in. I think this is what leads to bizarre cases of people murdering their spouse or children.

People should be intentional about tackling mental health, and the first step should be knowing what your mental problem is and how it can be solved. Additionally, we should learn to talk openly about our problems so that those who might be suffering know that they are no alone. 

Seek to have a support system. If you can afford therapy, go for it. Lastly, read books or other people’s relatable ordeals so as to get acquainted with their world view.