How Kenyans are coping with the mental health effects of Covid-19

Even before 2020, that’s before the outbreak of the current pandemic, Kenya already had a significant portion of the population that was grappling with mental health. And this was (and is still) an issue the government recognized and seemed keen to address.

In mid last year for example, the Taskforce on Mental Health recommended that mental illness be declared a National Emergency of epidemic proportions, and to prioritize mental health as a priority public health and socioeconomic agenda.

The Taskforce also recommended the establishment of a Mental Health Commission and Happiness, a public body with the mandate to advise, coordinate and continuously monitor the status of mental health, and report on the annual National Happiness Index.

The Taskforce, which had been set up in mid-December 2019, comprised of a multi sectoral team drawn from the Ministry of Health and other partner agencies. It was mandated to study the status of mental health in country, and recommend solutions to reform mental health systems.

In its findings, the Taskforce indicated that Kenya has a high burden of mental illness due to ill health, psychosocial disability and premature mortality with huge gaps in access to care.

The report, which was presented to Health CS Mutahi Kagwe, unnerving stats and figures on the state of mental health and illness in the country.

It is estimated that 1 in every 10 people suffer from a common mental disorder, a number which rises to 1 in every 4 people among patients attending routine outpatient services.

Depression and anxiety disorders are the major mental illnesses diagnosed in Kenya, followed by substance (ab)use disorders. Among the different types of substances, alcohol contributes to the largest burden of substance use related illnesses in Kenya. And even more disconcerting and of great concern is that alcohol abuse is most prevalent in the 18-29 year-old age group.

The background above describes the general mental health outlook in the country. But now, let’s dig deeper and bring in the issue and impact of the Covid-19 pandemic on the mental health situation in Kenya.

From the onset, let’s remember that the pandemic has meant that people go out less, interact and even communicate less with colleagues, earn comparatively less than they did pre the pandemic (for those who’re fortunate enough to still have an income), and have had to significantly adjust their lifestyles to cope with the current situation. This has subsequently had a negative impact on their overall mental health, further exacerbating cases of anxiety and depression within population and within households.

An article by the Kenya News Agency (KNA) states that Kenya has been ranked sixth among African countries with the highest cases of depression, with an estimated 1.9 million people suffering from various forms of mental condition – including depression and substance abuse.

The KNA article cites a study by Dr. Habil Otanga of the University of Nairobi’s Department of Psychology which says that the measures introduced by the government to curb the spread of the virus “can in turn lead to surge in mental related illnesses including depression, feelings of confusion, anger and fear, and even substance abuse.”

“It also brings with it a sense of boredom, loneliness, anger, isolation and frustration. In the post-quarantine/isolation period, loss of employment due to the depressed economy and the stigma around the disease are also likely to lead to mental health problems,” notes the KNA article, published in July last year.

At the beginning of the pandemic in early last year for instance, the Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) survey indicated that at least 300,000 Kenyans had lost their jobs due to the pandemic between January and March 2020.

Mary Wahome, a Counseling Psychologist and Programs Director at ‘The Reason to Hope,’ in Nairobi told KNA that such kind of drastic life changes have an adverse effect on one’s mental status, including their family members and if not addressed early, can lead to depression among other issues.

“We have had cases of people indulging in substance abuse to deal with the uncertainty and stress brought about by the pandemic, this in turn leads to dependence and also domestic abuse,” said Wahome.

On a more optimistic tone however, Wahome lauded the government for encouraging mental wellness and for the launch of the Psychological First Aid (PFA) guide which emphasizes Three Action Principles of Look, Listen and Link.

“When we follow this it will be easy to identify an individual in distress and also offer assistance,” she noted, further urging those who feel the weight of the virus is taking a toll on them not to hesitate but look for someone to talk to.

“You should not only seek help from a specialist but also talk to a friend, let them know what you are undergoing and how you feel. This will help ease their emotional stress and also find ways of dealing with the situation they are facing,” she added.

She stressed on the need to perform frequent body exercises as a form of stress relief, reading and also taking advantage of the Covid-19 period to engage in hobbies and talent development.

“Let people take this as an opportunity to kip fit, get in touch with one’s inner self and also engage in reading that would help expand their knowledge”, she stated.

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