Friday, November 14, 2008

Mathari: What is in a name

Daily Nation, Thursday November 13 2008 Page 11

A few weeks ago, the World Mental Health Day was marked. The event is commemorated on October 10, but in Kenya, this was changed to the last Friday of October due to the Moi Day holiday.

Every year, there are calls for the reduction of stigma against mental illness by changing the name of the premier mental health institution in this region, Mathari Hospital.

A former minister of health once suggested a change from Mathari Hospital to ‘‘New Muthaiga Hospital’’ or some other more glamorous name. Ironically, despite having the power to effect the change of name, the minister never went beyond the suggestion.

This year, the matter was rehashed at the ceremony marking the day at Mathari Hospital on October 31. It is likely that nothing will be done about this since the ceremony was given a wide berth by senior officials at the Health ministries.

There is stigma directed towards the mental health community, not only in Kenya, but all over the world. Those with mental illnesses are often shunned or hidden away from public view.

Many languages contain derogatory references to the mentally ill, all suggesting that the illness fundamentally changes one into something less than fully human.

The stigma is not limited to those with mental illness. Their families are often targets of snide remarks, and people are afraid to associate with them.

Stigma is often a product of ignorance and prejudice. It is then manifested in discriminatory behaviour. Tackling ignorance, prejudice and discrimination would, therefore, be a more comprehensive method of dealing with stigma than seeking to whitewash it with a mere change of name.

A strategy incorporating an increase in the general population’s knowledge on mental illness and mental health would be the beginning of an anti-stigma campaign.

Huge amounts of money have been channelled towards increasing knowledge on HIV and Aids over the last two decades, and today it is estimated that over 95 per cent of the adult population knows all there is to know about it.

If only a fraction of this money were used in a mental health awareness campaign, a huge dent in the stigma directed at the mentally ill would be made.

Prejudice may be tackled by demonstrating the ubiquitous nature of mental problems in our society, and highlighting helpful attitudes towards them. Investment in the facilities for treatment of mental illness would go a long way in improving the quality of life for the mentally ill, and for the general population at large.

Discrimination must be tackled from the very top. The Mental Health Act of 1989 takes the first step by outlawing discrimination in health insurance coverage for mental illnesses. This must be taken further to deal with discrimination at the workplace, in social places, hospitals and other public services.

Failure to fundamentally address the problem of stigma towards mental illness is responsible for many social ills in society.

The violent crises in our politics and in the education sector are an indictment on the mental health of our nation, and unless steps are taken to improve the situation, we can predict with utter certainty the recurrence of worse eruptions in future.

Dr Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University School of Medicine, Eldoret. (

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