Understanding Mental Health

In recent years, the numbers on mental health issues have been on the rise in Kenya. According to a study on ‘The State on Mental Health in Kenya’ by Dr. Kamau Kanyoro, it states that at least one in every four Kenyans suffers from a mental illness at one point in their lives; this is about 11.5 million people. Kenya has only 92 psychiatrists, 427 psychiatrist nurses who are trained to handle mental illness, about 10 medical social workers, a few mental psychologists and counselors who are competent to handle mental issues.

Almost 3 years ago, I found myself in the 1 out of 4 category. I was diagnosed with major depression and anxiety and was forced to face the harsh realities of these conditions. I had to undergo therapy sessions and take medication for both conditions. This is not what I had envisioned my adult life would be.

”Going by the estimated population of 46 million in 2017, the current staffing for the different professionals thus drastically falls short of the ideal ratio. For example, while it’s expected that a psychiatrist should serve 30,000 citizens, currently a psychiatrist is serving about half a million citizens. The situation is even worse when it comes to psychology services in Kenya when one worker is faced with a ratio of 4.6 million patients instead of a recommended 15,000.” A review of the Health ministry records by the Office of the Auditor-General (OAG) states.

Despite the alarmingly high numbers on mental health, it is still considered taboo to talk about it with many still attributing it to witchcraft or some sort of spiritual problem. In turn, many stay silent for fear of being judged and ostracized. Due to this, many go without seeking help which has been a factor in the rising suicide numbers.

In March 2019, a televised town hall show on Citizen TV stated that depression is the number one cause of suicide in Kenya. Suicide cases have been on the rise here in Kenya, according to the WHO, the number of suicides reported in Kenya rose by 58 percent between 2008 and 2017 to reach 421. The report also shows that more men are likely to commit suicide than women. Out of the 421 suicide cases in 2017, 330 involved men. According to police reports, the majority of suicide cases are of people below 30 years.

Understanding Mental health disorders

Mental health can take many forms, just as physical illnesses do. This can be known as psychiatric/psychological disorders. Some of these disorders are, but not limited to;

  • Anxiety disorder- this is where a person responds to an object or situation with fear and dread and is not able to handle it in a normal manner. Examples of these include generalized anxiety disorder, panic attacks, social anxiety, and phobias.
  • Mood disorders- this involves mood fluctuations e.g. from being overly sad to being overly happy. These include depression, bipolar, and cyclothymic disorder.
  • Psychotic disorders- this involves a distorted awareness of thinking. Common symptoms are hallucinations and delusions. Schizophrenia is an example of a psychotic disorder.
  • Eating disorders- this involves extreme emotions, attitudes, and behaviors towards weight and food. Anorexia nervosa, Bulimia, and binge eating disorder are examples of eating disorders.
  • Impulse control and addiction disorders- people affected by this are unable to control urges and impulses. These urges and addictions lead them to be harmful to themselves and others and often make them ignore relationships and responsibilities. These types of addiction include compulsive gambling, kleptomania, etc. with alcohol and drugs being common objects of addiction.
  • Personality disorders- these are extreme and inflexible personality traits that are distressing to the person and/or cause problems in work, school, or social relationships. Examples include antisocial personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive personality disorder, and paranoid personality disorder.
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder- People with OCD are plagued by constant thoughts or fears that cause them to perform certain rituals or routines. The disturbing thoughts are called obsessions, and the rituals are called compulsions. An example is a person with an unreasonable fear of germs who constantly washes his or her hands.
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder- PTSD is a condition that can develop following a traumatic and/or terrifying event, such as a sexual or physical assault, the unexpected death of a loved one, or a natural disaster. People with PTSD often have lasting and frightening thoughts and memories of the event and tend to be emotionally numb.

The above are the common types of mental illness that can affect anyone despite their age, financial situation, race, gender, religion, etc. Although most of these disorders have their unique symptoms, some common ones that cut across many of them include;

  • Confused/slow thinking
  • Sadness/irritability{prolonged depression}
  • Feelings of extreme low or high
  • Excessive fear, worries, and anxiety
  • Social withdrawal
  • Dramatic changes in eating /sleeping
  • Detachment from reality (delusions), paranoia or hallucinations
  • Inability to cope with daily problems or stress
  • Trouble understanding and relating to situations and to people
  • Alcohol or drug abuse
  • Major changes in eating habits
  • Sex drive changes
  • Excessive anger, hostility or violence
  • Suicidal thinking

As the government struggles to tackle the mental health crisis, individuals need to take charge of their own health and that of their loved ones. Society should understand that mental illness is an illness like any other and not something to shy away from. This will encourage many to get help hence reducing the rising numbers of psychiatric and suicide cases.


Help and treatment are highly recommended for people who feel that they could have a mental disorder. This is encouraged so as get a correct diagnosis of the condition they could be suffering from and the right course of treatment to be pursued. Most of the diagnosis includes a physical and psychological exam and in some cases, a lab test. When the disorder is established, treatment begins immediately which includes seeing a counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist and in severe cases, medication is prescribed to try to improve the symptoms.

When an individual is at this stage, self-care is crucial in their journey to recovery. Some of the self-help techniques an individual could adopt include;

  • Learning about their mental illness
  • Adhering to the prescribed treatment plan
  • Avoiding drugs and alcohol
  • Being active
  • Taking up a positive attitude
  • Making healthy choices in terms of diet, sleep, and physical activity
  • Engaging in support groups
  • Being open to friends and family

We should also encourage, empathize (not judge or pity), listen, and be patient with those who go through mental illnesses. Showing care and concern, in turn, leads to opening up and trusting those around them creating a comfortable journey to recovery. When we shun, discriminate and make them feel like there is something wrong with them, they tend to avoid others, keep to themselves which can lead to antisocial behaviors and even suicidal thoughts. Help them out of the lethargic and dark state they are in.


Are you or someone close to you going through the symptoms mentioned above? Kindly consider seeking help from a trained counselor, therapist, or psychiatrist in hospital. Reach out to a close trusted friend or in your place of worship. One can also visit counseling centers like Amani Counseling Center, Niskize, and Befrienders Kenya.

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