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Mental health push in Kenya helps fight old stigma

19 January 2018


“TREMENDOUS progress” in improving mental health in Kenya had been achieved in the past ten years, a campaigner said this week, and the Church had played an important part in tackling fear and stigmatisation.

The programme manager for the international NGO BasicNeeds, in Kenya, Joyce Kingori, described this week how a “huge shift” had taken place. “We are not there yet, but there is tremendous goodwill from everyone. In the last ten years there has been tremendous progress.”

She pointed to the launch of the country’s first National Mental Health Policy, in 2016. The involvement of stakeholders, including those affected by mental health, in developing this policy was indicative of the shift, she said.

In London for a BasicNeeds international conference, which brought together staff and partners from several developing countries, Ms Kingori described how the Roman Catholic agency Caritas had “integrated and mainstreamed awareness and advocacy”, noting that one bishop was so enthusiastic about the work that “wherever he went, he talked about mental health and the work of Caritas”.

A Roman Catholic priest in the diocese of Nyeri, Kenya, Fr Peterson Ndegwa, who is director of Caritas Nyeri, said that the charity’s work on mental health was part of its vision for a “just and empowered society that upholds human dignity”. Its work, based on the BasicNeeds model, entailed both advocacy and treatment.

“There still exists a stigma,” he said. “Many families that have cases of disability would hide people. . . It is only now that we are coming to appreciate that mental health is like any other health.”

Conscious that “mental health has a big relationship with poverty”, the charity also works to create livelihoods and restore dignity — including, in some cases, giving those affected by mental-health problems employment at Caritas. Among the changes for which it is lobbying are improved facilities in primary care, including access to drugs that can be easily administered by carers.

The Church advocated for “formal treatment”, he said; some communities have attributed mental health to witchcraft, or other traditional beliefs.

“We enjoy the goodwill of the community,” he explained. “They trust us. We have very easy access to the community. . . The voice of the Church is very strong and credible.”

A study in 2012 suggested that 10.8 per cent of the Kenyan population was affected by mental disorders, and, in 2016, a forum held by the US National Academy of Sciences heard that the country had only 88 psychiatrists and 427 psychiatric nurses, for a population of 44 million. Only 16 out of 47 counties had psychiatrists in the public sector, and none had psychologists. Health drives have often focused on communicable diseases, including HIV/AIDS, and research suggests that people with mental-health problems often come to health facilities with physical complaints that may be somatic.

BasicNeeds, part of the Christian Blind Mission (CBM) family of charities, reports that 80 per cent of people facing mental-health problems live in developing countries, where less than one in five receive any treatment. This week, the chief executive of BasicNeeds, Adrian Sell, described how its work was demonstrating that mental health could be treated in “low-resource settings”, with a model that had been evaluated in peer-reviewed journals and was increasingly being delivered by partners such as Caritas.

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