Thursday, February 20, 2014

Mental health needs high-profile advocate

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 09 February 2014

There has been a flurry of prominent and influential personalities selecting and supporting causes they hold dear to themselves and to Kenyans at large. They have taken up roles in advocacy and support of these causes, organising activities and raising funds for them. For instance, the President and his Deputy have taken agriculture very seriously and have invested heavily in programmes aimed at bolstering food security in our country.

The Deputy President’s wife has taken women’s empowerment to the next level, with her most prominent activity being in support of women’s groups across the country. And just last week, the First Lady launched preparations for a half-marathon in support of programmes to improve maternal and child care. She has also been involved in raising funds and awareness for HIV/Aids initiatives, and supporting orphaned or abandoned children.

In short, the top leadership in our country is involved in charitable initiatives aimed at empowering Kenyans of all walks of life. All these causes are equally worthy, and have far-reaching impacts on this country’s socio-economic situation.

But one thing is missing.

In my opinion, the most vulnerable members of our society, male or female, rich or poor, young or old, are those suffering from mental disorders. Wherever they are to be found, they are ridiculed, discriminated against, ignored, hidden or abused most savagely. So, for instance, people with HIV/Aids and mental illness have worse outcomes than those without mental illness.

It is in realising this that about 10 months ago I attempted to recruit such a high-profile personality through an open letter published on this page. I wrote the letter to the then newly-elected President Uhuru Kenyatta while he was still celebrating his victory in last year’s General Election.

In that letter, I challenged President Kenyatta to make his presidency count for health and, more specifically, for mental health. I pointed out the challenges facing the health sector as well as the consequences of neglecting the mental health of our people. I indicated to him that a decision to invest in health and mental health would make it much easier to address other sectors of our economy.

Unfortunately, most of the things I said then clearly still need to be repeated, which is why I am constrained to make this appeal again. I am looking for a high-profile Kenyan to take up an advocacy role for mental health in Kenya. If it pleases the President or any other similarly well-connected person, I would like to invite them to take up the cause of improving the lot of Kenyans suffering from mental disorders.

Any little thing done in support of this cause will go a long way in improving the lot of all Kenyans, not just those that are mentally ill. Such an advocate could team up with mental health advocates and give talks, participate in walks and marathons, help raise funds and try to influence the decision-makers at the heart of this government in favour of better mental health for all Kenyans.

Currently mental health workers, advocates and patients have few friends, and are considered queer, weird, or even misplaced whenever they appear anywhere in public. A high-profile advocate will help to change this situation, and improve the quality of life for these vulnerable individuals. 

Dr Atwoli is a consultant psychiatrist and senior lecturer at Moi University’s School of Medicine.

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