By LUKOYE ATWOLI
Sunday Nation 10 April 2011
In the past few days, the ministry of Special Programmes and the agency responsible for administering programmes for disabled persons have engaged in a publicity blitz to demonstrate just how much they are doing for disabled people in Kenya.
This was in response to a string of demonstrations and media campaigns alleging that the government was sitting on funds meant for people with mental disabilities.
Mental health in Kenya was recently thrust into the limelight when the international news channel CNN aired a documentary on mental health in Kenya titled “Locked up and forgotten”.
This documentary exposed the level of neglect that the mentally ill and people with mental disabilities face in this country.
The net result of this media blitz has been a certain amount of confusion on the real meanings of terms such as mental illness, mental disability and mental handicap.
An impression has been created that mentally ill people are also disabled or handicapped, and should benefit from the disability funds.
While I have no problem with mentally ill persons being supported by the government one way or the other, it is important to ensure that the designations they get will not result in further confusion and stigma.
Mental illness, often used interchangeably with mental disorder, refers to a change in an individual’s feelings, thoughts or behaviour that causes significant distress or interferes with important areas of functioning.
Sometimes people with mental illness constitute a threat to themselves or to others, and need inpatient treatment in hospital.
The important thing to note here is that mental illness, just like other illnesses, can be managed in a way that allows the individual to go back to as near normal functioning as possible.
Common mental illnesses include depression and anxiety disorders, while the more dramatic ones include schizophrenia and bipolar disorders.
Mental disability, or mental handicap as it is sometimes referred to, deals with conditions that often begin in early childhood and interfere with an individual’s ability to express themselves or adapt to their environment adequately for their own survival.
These include conditions such as mental retardation, pervasive developmental disorders (including autism), and learning disabilities including problems with reading, writing and calculation.
From these simple definitions, it should be clear that mental illness (or disorder) is not the same thing as mental disability or mental handicap.
Mental illness may affect a person with previously normal functioning and, with treatment, many are able to regain their previous level of functioning.
Mental disability or handicap, on the other hand, begins early in childhood, and the best management modalities focus on helping them to be as independent as possible in their own lives.
Importantly, mental illness does not necessarily constitute disability. Many people with mental illness are living very fulfilling lives, and playing important roles in the lives of their families, communities and the society at large.
It is, therefore, necessary for those engaged in the discourse on the rights of persons with disabilities to clarify that the term “mental disability” does not in any way include people with such mental illnesses as depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and even alcohol dependence.
Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and lecturer at Moi University’s school of medicine www.lukoyeatwoli.com