The conversation on mental health has slowly but surely been gaining momentum in Kenya. In November 2019, President Uhuru Kenyatta directed the Ministry of Health to establish a task force that would investigate the current mental health status in the country and report back within 90 days. After which, the task force is expected to provide recommendations, in the form of new or revised policies, to address what seems to be a dire situation.
The timing of this directive by the President couldn’t have been better seeing that the media is awash with reports of suicide, violence and substance abuse. To this effect, the task force has set out to receive views from the public across the country. This public participation process is seeking submissions that will touch on; mental health priority issues in Kenyans’ respective areas, proposals on practical solutions to the priority mental health issues and the level of preparedness to address these mental health issues.
Through an SMS question, we sought to get a pulse of the nation on mental health. Some of the major concerns that emerged from the responses were; lack of awareness, stigma, inadequate mental health facilities and staff, accessibility and affordability of mental health services, availability of mental health facilities in counties and the current economic state and corruption as catalysts to mental illnesses.
These responses mirror some of the issues highlighted in the 2015 Kenya Mental Health Policy that was drafted by the James Macharia-led team. The 32-page document set out to achieve these four objectives; strengthen effective leadership and governance for mental health; ensure access to comprehensive, integrated and high quality, promotive, preventive, curative and rehabilitative mental health care services at all levels of healthcare; implement strategies for promotion of mental health, prevention of mental disorders and substance use disorders; and strengthen mental health systems.
Unfortunately, the rising cases of suicide countrywide paint a grim picture of the ineffectiveness of this policy. Access to comprehensive mental health care services remains a luxury yet health is a devolved function. Even with the expansion of referral hospitals and setting up of clinics, mental health is still neglected and overlooked. Perhaps this taskforce would fuel the much-needed enactment of the 2015 policy and beef it up with new recommendations to give the mental health status of Kenya the attention it deserves.
Health is among the pillars of the President’s Big 4 Agenda under Universal Healthcare. It comes as no surprise that the Ministry of Health has been put to task to find a lasting solution to what is now being termed as a “national disaster”. For a government that has anchored a good part of its legacy on youth empowerment, it would be a great loss if said youth are lost to more and more cases of depression, suicide and substance abuse.
As it has been said before, Kenya ails not from a lack of legislation or policy but from the reluctance to implement them to the letter. The fire that the task force has ignited should not die down along the way. Many Kenyans who have been suffering in silence are hoping that the task force brings practical outcomes that will save them from the shame and pain that has for long been associated with mental illnesses.
By putting measures in place both at the Ministry and County levels, the government will go a long way in attaining the preventive healthcare approach that has proven to be most effective.
Just as the Executive, the 12th Parliament has the task to leave a legacy. To consider and pass the Mental Health (Amendment) Bill, 2018 into law would be a significant way to cement this House as champions for a healthy Kenya.