Women sweep Mombasa streets of the mentally ill

Members of the Fight Against Drugs Women Organisation point a mentally ill man (right) towards the Port Reitz Mental Hospital in Changamwe, Mombasa County, for treatment. Many of the mentally ill in Mombasa are drug addicts. Photo/LABAN WALLOGA

Mombasa county has arguably the largest number of people with mental illness.

A walk in many of the streets will reveal a population of people with mild mental illness to outright schizophrenics, a situation experts attribute more to drugs abuse than anything else. And the number is increasing.

According to the head psychiatrist at Port Reitz Mental Hospital in Mombasa, Dr Charles Mwangome, some of the illnesses can easily be treated but are complicated due to neglect by relatives of the patients.

He said one of the reasons the mentally ill are neglected is the widespread belief that those with mental illness have been bewitched.

A group of women, however, has determined to change the situation and has embarked on a mission to rid the streets of the mentally ill.

Fight Against Drugs Women Organisation has been rounding up the affected persons and taking them to hospital.

Ms Amina Abdallah, one of the forces behind the drive, says the initiative was aimed at combating the myth that mental illness is caused by witchcraft.

She said they wanted to pass the message that the mentally ill deserve medical attention and counselling.

“Something needed to be done and we set out on humanitarian grounds to try and help these people.

“It is unacceptable for such a big city like Mombasa to have grown up men and women walking naked while there are mental institutions,” Ms Abdallah said.

She added: “The problem is big in Mombasa because there are more than 500 such cases in various parts of the county.

“A psychiatrist I talked to said about 90 per cent of them are drug related cases, an indication that drugs are destroying our youth.”

But getting the patients to hospital has been both strenuous and costly. So far, the group has taken 27 patients to Port Reitz, the only mental hospital in the region.

And although the organisation is determined to carry through with its mission, myriad problems stand in their way, key among them finances.

Dr Mwangome said: “The campaign to round up the patients from the streets was unique and we commend the effort. But one thing is clear that we cannot continue to take more because of the strain on the resources.”

Ease the burden

The head psychiatrist lamented that the programme would have been a success had relatives taken responsibility for their kin to ease the burden on the institution.

“Some of the cases can even be contained at the community level, but because of stigma most of them find their way into the streets,” he added.

An interview with other health personnel who handle the patients at Port Reitz confirmed there was a major challenge in linking recovering patients with their families.

“It is more complicated for us especially when the patients have been brought by the police.

“It means there is no one to pay for them and even when it’s the relatives who have brought them here they do not seem to care about their welfare after that,” said Mr Patrick Mongera, the officer in charge of medical social work.

A visit to the hospital confirmed that with good care, many of them could recover fully, but nursing officer, Elizabeth Omuyoyi, warned that drug abuse has a much bigger impact on mental health than most people realise.

Ms Omuyoyi added that because of the drugs menace, those who stabilise need to be put in rehabilitation homes.

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