(photo cred: Mutua Matheka)
Mental illness (particularly in Kenya) has been a topic I’ve been wanting to write about for a long time. When i started my other blog it was one of the first things i thought i must write about when i start this one.Unfortunately the ins and outs of life has meant that my publishing on here has been pretty dormant (something i vow to improve on) and i have a piece of paper by my bedside looking at me suspiciously; with a list of all the topics i want to write about here. But i never seem to get round to it. So now i am challenging myself. Stop procrastinating!
Mental illness is something that is all too familiar to me. I’ve been battling depression for the last three years. And the more i research on it, experience it…the more i realize there is a possibility I’ve been battling it, unknowingly, for the last 6-8 years. Since my early teens. But at the time i thought these were regular, monstrous, often televised teen hormones. I wasn’t even phased when i started cutting my wrists in high school. A terrible habit i picked from my best friend of the time; which i thought was all fun and games. I enjoyed the high and didn’t really know why i was doing it (it wasn’t peer pressure). It was only later on that i realized the then upheaval of my life on the family front is what sparked the mood swings, crying for no reason, the constant blinding anger and of course the cutting. Essentially, depression. This, sadly, is a habit i still haven’t quit as i write this. I will say its much less frequent.
Growing up, for the most part in Kenya, mental illness was a hush hush taboo topic. It is predominantly regarded as a ‘spiritual’ rather than a mental disorder. In Nairobi there is a mental hospital called Mathare, the only public psychiatric hospital in a country of 48 odd Million people. Mathare has existed since 1910, founded by the colonial authorities of British Kenya. Currently it has exceeded its bed capacity by over 200%, it is dilapidated, inadequately supplied with medical equipment…and generally somewhere you wouldn’t want to be sent. Did i mention it also doubles as a rehabilitation center? Of course there are gorgeous private mental hospitals available. But not financially viable a large percentage of Kenyans.
But it is important to note that this isn’t unique to Kenya.
Its a continent-wide issue. Last year i came across a horror story of how families in Benin treat their mentally ill relatives (this includes everything from depression to schizophrenia). They tie them to trees or rocks to ‘contain them’. And i thought, well then, i’d rather be sent to Mathare if that’s the case. Unfortunately i cannot speak for the deep rural areas of Kenya on how they treat their mentally ill- my knowledge on this is lacking and probably something i should research on. But this opened my eyes to how drastically taboo it is- as if one actively chooses to be mentally ill. You wake up one morning and think ‘hey, im pretty bored. How about i start sporadically breaking down in tears at public places, self-harming, neglecting my responsibilities and cutting off all social contact with family and friends’. Yes definitely something someone would choose.
It warms my heart at how much exposure mental illness is gradually being given by the younger generation in the urban centers in an attempt to end the stigma. And i can’t begin to applaud some of the champions of it. The ones I have come across include; Sitawa Wafula who started a blog called My Mind Funk with an associated mental health center in the low income settlements, Awuor Onyango who shared her own personal battle with depression on Brainstorm.co.ke and several Twitter personalities- just to name a few. But it also makes me wonder what happens to the population who do not have access to the internet- to tap into to a whole world of support and inspirational stories to make the loneliness that comes with depression…a whole lot less lonely. But i’m trying to believe that those who are privileged enough to be exposed to this online support system will spread that knowledge, understanding and comfort to others. As i try my best to do. Consequently i’m constantly alert to the depression flags that could be exhibited by other people, but especially cousins and friends younger than me. I would never wish this life upon anyone.
But then i also ask myself what qualifies me to offer support to others when most of the time? I’m trying to keep myself from drowning. And i am still on antidepressants; a year four months later. Every time i think i am scaling back, heading down the road of getting off them; something destabilizing happens and my doctor sighs, and recommends we up my dosage. Yet again. But some of these destabilizing situations are also self-inflicted and i wonder if happiness is so foreign that i self sabotage because i wouldn’t know what to do with myself if i am happy. But this is a whole other rabbit hole i am not willing to go into today.
Yesterday i went for my session, and as i sat in the reception waiting to go in, I looked around and it was pretty much full. There are only two psychologists at this particular clinic, and its not cheap either. Everytime i try to book an appointment its nearly impossible and i have never found that waiting room deserted, in the one and a half years I’ve been going there. So evidently there is a demand and a need for mental illness practitioners in Kenya. But no, we still choose to be hush hush and adopt and ostrich-head-in-the-sand approach to things. Why? Is it so catastrophic to accept that we as Kenyans are like everyone else in the world; we have problems whether spurred by societal factors or otherwise, and sometimes we need help? But our culture is such that emotions and feeling ‘things’ is frowned upon. You are expected to cover it up with humour and never show the slightest bit of weakness, and never- God forbid- speak about it in public. But feel free to cry to the point of heaving, about it in the privacy of your home or bedroom and don’t you dare forget to put eyedrops so no one suspects you were crying.
This is the country we live in. And unfortunately i have watched people close to me- others acquaintances, ignore the feelings that precede the deep dark well that is depression. And when they are eventually engulfed by the darkness, it clings so tightly around their throats- that for some there has been no surviving it. When the symptoms begin to show early on and you tackle them, there is hope. Personally i was one of the people that caught mine early on, and despite ignoring the need for medication, i nearly ended up in hospital for a long time. Now try to imagine those that clothe their depression with humour. Where do they end up?
Word to the wise? Covering up your, (or anyone close to you) depression, is the equivalent of sweeping all the remnants of food that have fallen in your kitchen- under a carpet. For an extended period of time. Then eventually it will start rotting, till it starts to mould the carpet. And you’re forced to throw out your entire very expensive Persian carpet. I don’t know how long we will take to get to a place where mental illness is not taboo, and people can view it not as a spiritual disorder that entails taking the sufferer to your religious leader for some kind of exorcism ritual; but as a mental disorder in no way the fault of the patient. That requires an abundance of support all round.
I do hope i’m around to see this shift.