Covid-19 exacerbates mental health problems in Kenya

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In Kibera, a low-income neighborhood in the capital Nairobi, it can be hard for young Kenyans to find hope

Alice Wanjiku’s son, 65, has found life too much to bear during the pandemic. He committed suicide in 2021.

Kimani was her youngest child, seven, and he took on financial responsibility for her medical bills and food after her mother was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Wanjiku currently pays $14 a week for his cancer treatment at Mbagathi Hospital. She had missed medical care two months earlier in her treatment due to a lack of funds.

Aged 29, he was the father of 2 children.

After her work dried up during the pandemic, Kimani could barely make ends meet. He sold his paintings and worked in occasional construction jobs.

“If he had asked for help, it wouldn’t have happened. He would have been counseled and changed his mind. Being left alone inspired the negative action,” Wanjiku says.

Kenya has a population of 53.77 million and less than 500 mental health workers.

This prompted community initiatives to act to fill the void.

In the Kibera slums, a 68-member self-help group known as “Ushirika Stress Free” aims to help locals cope with the economic downturn caused by COVID-19.

The group offers free counseling and group therapy.

“In fact, after the COVID pandemic, majority of people leaving Kibera slums lost their jobs and even casual workers had to move to the hinterland and apart from that it also brought stress on mental health, especially people who couldn’t meet their basic food needs, others couldn’t even fit in their accommodation, paying rent and school fees. This really created economic hardship for people living in slums, says Anthony Onyango, a community health worker at Ushirika Health Center, who also visits Wanjiku.

In Kenya’s slums, many cases of mental illness go unnoticed, as residents often choose to suffer in silence in an attempt to avoid the discrimination associated with mental illness, Onyango adds.

“The majority of our people live in denial and we have myths and misconceptions. It’s because of a lack of education and poor knowledge of the status. So people don’t believe that there’s mental health and then they get into stress or depression, that sort of thing.”

According to a report by Kenya’s Ministry of Health, one in ten Kenyans suffers from a mental disorder.

The Mental Health Task Force 2020 report called for more funding for mental health facilities and recommended that “mental illness be declared a national emergency of epidemic proportions, to prioritize mental health in as a public health priority and a socio-economic agenda”.

The government recently announced a new neuropsychiatric hospital and center of excellence that will become a national center for education and training to address the mental health challenges facing the country.

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