Thursday, May 23, 2013

Mental patients: Media could have done better

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation, 19 May 2013

“Kenyan patients escape from Nairobi’s Mathari hospital,” the BBC reported on its website some time last week. The Daily Nation reported that “40 mental patients escaped from Mathari Hospital”. And “Nine escaped mentally ill patients return to Mathari Hospital”, reported The Star.

This narrative was repeated in all news outlets last week when mentally ill patients absconded from the country’s national psychiatric referral and teaching hospital. The Daily Nation editorial on Thursday stated: “... all indications are that the escape was pre-planned and meticulously executed. People who are deranged cannot have the capacity to do that ...”

This same thinking was widely reflected on social media, with many deriding mentally ill people as being zombies, always sedated, incapable of independent thought, “mentally challenged”, or just outright stupid to the extent that any intelligible thing they do should be considered a sign of wellness or conspiracy.

From these examples, it is clear that many view mental illnesses as exotic stuff that only happens to others, never to oneself or to loved ones. They are also viewed as conditions that always result in grossly deranged behaviour, and many people believe that they would recognise a mentally ill person on sight if they met one.

Stereotypes have been created that view making fun of mentally ill people as being a harmless pastime, and everyone, including politicians, refers to their opponents as being mentally ill. The problem, of course, is that this public perception is completely misguided.

First, mental illnesses are not a homogenous condition that can be discussed collectively. Depending on the classification system one uses, there are dozens of different mental disorders, many of which do not share any common symptoms. They range from mild anxiety disorders to the more severely disabling disorganised type of schizophrenia. Painting every mental illness with the same brush is akin to saying that illnesses as diverse as malaria and hypertension are actually the same condition.

Secondly, not all mental illnesses disrupt an individual’s ability to think, plan or organise their own lives. The vast majority of people with mental illness are not in hospital, and are going about their lives oblivious of the fact that the difficulties they are encountering may be due to a mental illness that is amenable to treatment.
They are our politicians, our businesspeople, our health workers, industrialists, drivers and street people. A mental illness is not necessarily a disability.

Thirdly, mentally ill people are not criminals by virtue of being mentally ill, and mental hospitals are not prisons. It is therefore inappropriate to refer to them as having “escaped” whenever they leave the hospital before being officially discharged. In all medical settings, whenever a patient leaves the hospital in this manner, they are said to have absconded. Why it suddenly becomes “escape” in the case of mental illness is beyond me.

Finally, mentally ill patients do not suddenly lose their humanity and become fair game for dehumanising treatment. The Constitution of Kenya guarantees them the right to equality and freedom from discrimination, the right to privacy and the right to be treated with dignity.

Kenyans and the media should should respect the rights of these vulnerable members of our society. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is the secretary, Kenya Psychiatric Association, and a senior lecturer at the Moi University’s school of medicine; Twitter @LukoyeAtwoli

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