Sunday, June 30, 2013

More people with mental illness need to speak out

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation, 30 June 2013

Today, please allow me to write a note of personal appreciation to a special Kenyan living with mental illness.
I know her because she actually told the world her name, and her story, obviating any fear I may have had of breaching her privacy. The purpose of writing to her is to thank her most profoundly for playing a major role in clearing up a lot of the myths around mental illness.

Last Thursday, Ms Nancy Thuo wrote a beautiful piece in the Nation’s Living magazine. She gave such a vivid description of her experience with schizophrenia that I would recommend everyone who wants to understand this devastating condition to read.

In simple language that often escapes those of us learned in these things, she explained how it feels to hear voices nobody else could hear, to hold abnormal beliefs and to have difficulties interacting normally with people around you.

Above all, the hope she exuded in that article would serve as balm for anyone newly diagnosed with this or any other mental disorder -- that you can have this “severe” mental illness and still go on to achieve great things with your life. That you can be on long-term treatment and follow-up for schizophrenia and still enjoy a fulfilling life, perhaps even more fulfilling than if you had never experienced this illness.

This is the message those of us in the mental health field have been trying to pass on for ages, with only qualified success. Stigma continues apace, and people keep asking whether “madness” can be treated. People keep making derogatory statements about those living with mental illness. Mental illness tags are used as insults against people we do not like.

For a long time I have wondered what it would take to shock our nation into the realisation that most people with mental illness are not dangerous or “finished”, and are able to lead perfectly normal lives with treatment and follow-up. Ms Thuo’s article thrilled me, and gave me the opportunity to discuss these ideas with anyone who cares to listen.

Psychiatrists, psychologists and other mental health workers are taking care of a large number of people in our population. Among these people, I am more than certain that there are successful businesspeople, politicians, magistrates and judges, lawyers, teachers, doctors and lecturers at our universities.

It is my humble request to these successful individuals to follow Ms Thuo’s lead, and begin speaking publicly about their own journey with mental illness. Kenyans need to see that at least some of the people they idolise, who are very successful at what they do, are also living with mental illness.

The message we need to get out there is that mental illness is not a death sentence, and it does not have to curtail one’s life and ambitions. Mental illnesses, as we are discovering in the scientific world, may actually give one deep insights on life, and help people to appreciate many things they take for granted in their lives.

One hopes that Living magazine, and other daily and weekly publications, will begin featuring such stories more regularly, and allow readers to give their feedback on the same. Thank you Nancy Thuo for opening this gate, and I hope we shall have a flood of articles coming through courtesy of your initiative. 

Dr Lukoye Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer, Moi University School of Medicine. Lukoye@gmail.com; Twitter @LukoyeAtwoli

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