Monday, June 10, 2013

We are a traumatised nation in need of healing

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 09 June 2013

The Kenya Psychiatric Association (KPA) holds its fifth Annual Scientific Conference from Thursday. This year the theme focuses on trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder, and several experts are lined up to make presentations in this specialised area. Although this theme was agreed on several months ago, it seems appropriate that we tackle it at this point in time for several reasons.

Firstly, the British Government is finally owning up to its colonial excesses and is discussing compensation with Kenyan liberation veterans. Previous work with these veterans uncovered a stunning magnitude of psychological scarring that far outweighs the visible wounds they may have sustained during the Mau Mau struggle. That this remains unaddressed to this day is a testament to our skewed national priorities, and leaves us exposed to the consequences said to follow those that forget their past.

Secondly, we are just emerging from the first General Election after the 2007 debacle that resulted in massive loss of lives and destruction of property ostensibly due to political differences. Similarly, studies carried out among those affected by post-election violence have shown high rates of mental disorders such as post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and substance use. Tragically, we do not have an organised mechanism for helping people affected in this manner.

Thirdly, there is overwhelming evidence that our population has over the years been so brutalised physically and psychologically that we are collectively suffering from the group equivalent of post-traumatic mental disorders.

For instance, traumatised people tend to re-experience the traumatic event in distressing ways, and also do everything they can to avoid memories, events or even people related to the traumatic event. They also tend to be easily startled and overreact to trivial stimuli.

If this description does not fit our collective national behaviour, then I don’t know what does. We are the nation of “forgive and forget”, or as the song goes, tusahau yaliyopita tujenge taifa (let’s forget the past and build the nation). We are the nation led by people who exhort us to “avoid opening up past wounds” due to the fear that they could cause upheaval.

We are a people plagued by so many unspoken “historical injustices” that even the Truth, Justice and Reconciliation Commission only managed to scratch the surface. And more recently, we have become the oversensitive nation that must be constantly reminded to “accept (any event we consider unpleasant) and move on”.

The KPA conference, therefore, provides an ideal opportunity for us to start a national conversation on what ails us as a nation, and how we can begin to conclusively address our traumatic past and embark on a journey of healing. The association is ready to provide the expertise necessary to point us in the right direction.

In this connection, it is gratifying that the Cabinet Secretary for Health has graciously agreed to open the conference and interact constructively with mental health experts during this meeting. One hopes that this sort of positive engagement will continue in the coming years if we are interested in guaranteeing the mental health of our people.

We have already presented the Health ministry with information on problems that need fixing in order to improve mental health services. A mentally healthy population will also be happier, healthier and more productive. 

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

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