Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Mental health philanthropy is good, but …

By Lukoye Atwoli
Sunday Nation 23 February 2014

Two weeks ago in this column, we discussed the need for a high profile advocate for mental health in this country. I was at the point of despair, having given over and over again the reasons why it is important and even profitable to invest in mental health. Despite these noises, the Ministry of Health had gone ahead and illegally disbanded the division of mental health, at a time when such a division should have expanded to address the mental health challenges of Kenyans.

A few days after the article was published, I spoke with the Cabinet Secretary for Health, who assured me that the government was aware of the challenges facing the sector, and was doing something about it. As it turns out, First Lady Margaret Kenyatta did visit Mathari Hospital accompanied by benefactors from the Safaricom Foundation who donated Sh50 million to help rehabilitate the facility.

The donated funds will go towards renovation of some wards and purchase the necessary equipment and necessities to improve patient care. One must necessarily thank Safaricom Foundation and the First Lady for taking the initiative to highlight the plight of the mentally ill and their carers. One also hopes that Mrs Kenyatta has, through this kind gesture, accepted to be the voice of the mentally ill and look out for their best interests.

Unfortunately, however, the Mathari situation is emblematic of our treatment of the mentally ill in our country, in our homes, and in our social circles. We do not plan for their needs, and instead “out source” them to charitable individuals and organisations. Most activities aimed at improving the mental health of Kenyans are funded by donors and private individuals.

I hope that with the involvement of the First Lady and the well-heeled donor fraternity, the government’s conscience will be sufficiently pricked, encouraging those responsible to take mental health more seriously. If I had my way, I would ensure that a few steps with huge gains are implemented immediately to obviate the need for Safaricom Foundation to make a similar visit this time next year. 


The Ministry of Health would move to fully implement the Mental Health Act’s provisions on funding of mental health services and creation of a board to advise the government in this area. The Division of Mental Health would be revitalised and facilitated to enable it to handle emerging mental health problems, including suicide, homicide, road crashes and substance use, such as alcohol related problems.

A vote for mental health services would be created in the Health Ministry budget in order to adequately fund mental health services, including mental health research, health promotion, prevention of mental illnesses and treatment services for the mentally ill. All government programmes and policies would be examined for their mental health impact, and those that pose a risk to the mental health of the population would be refined to reduce or eliminate this risk.

Doing these things does not constitute a favour to Kenyans. It is a right guaranteed to all those residing in this fair republic by the supreme law of the land, under the right to health. It is a responsibility bestowed upon our elected governments, and cannot be ceded to well-meaning philanthropists. 

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

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