The Star (Kenya) - - Voices -

Aquick Google search on im­ages about men­tal health in Africa shows peo­ple locked up in chains and kept in in­hu­mane con­di­tions. The topic is ta­boo and many are quick to dis­miss it. Un­for­tu­nately, this at­ti­tude is preva­lent even among African gov­ern­ments which should en­sure cit­i­zens ac­cess the high­est at­tain­able stan­dard of health­care, in­clud­ing men­tal health. In re­cent years, ‘Africa Ris­ing’ has been a catch­phrase in many con­ver­sa­tions about the con­ti­nent. It is used to de­scribe the per­ceived de­vel­op­ment in the con­ti­nent and the op­por­tu­ni­ties for more growth.

Coun­tries such as Kenya have taken the phrase to heart, host­ing a va­ri­ety of in­ter­na­tional meets such as the UNCTAD 14 and the TICAD IV this year as fol­low-ups to the Global En­trepreneur­ship Sum­mit co-hosted by Pres­i­dents Uhuru Keny­atta and Barack Obama last year. All this is in an ef­fort to cre­ate an at­mos­phere for trade and de­vel­op­ment in the coun­try and un­der­score the ‘Africa Ris­ing’ theme.

Mea­sured by the me­dian age world­wide, Africa is the youngest con­ti­nent in the world, with a me­dian-age of 19.7, mean­ing its rise is largely in the hands of its young peo­ple. African gov­ern­ments have taken this into con­sid­er­a­tion and writ­ten the youth into their de­vel­op­ment plans. The gov­ern­ment, for ex­am­ple, has come up with ini­tia­tives such as the Youth Fund whose fo­cus is on en­ter­prise de­vel­op­ment and par­tic­i­pa­tion by the youth in na­tion build­ing.

De­spite these ef­forts, the rise of Kenya and Africa as a whole is leav­ing some­thing out: It does not take into con­sid­er­a­tion the need to cre­ate a con­ducive at­mos­phere for the men­tal well-be­ing of the peo­ple who are pow­er­ing this rise. In an ef­fort to bring this to light, the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion teamed up with the World Bank ear­lier this year to con­vene an in­ter­na­tional meet­ing dubbed Out of the Shad­ows; Mak­ing Men­tal Health a Global Pri­or­ity, which brought to­gether min­is­ters of Fi­nance and Health, other high level gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials, in­ter­na­tional de­vel­op­ment aid agen­cies, foun­da­tions, pri­vate sec­tor part­ners, and civil so­ci­ety to dis­cuss men­tal health from an eco­nomic an­gle.

Most gov­ern­ments ne­glect the bur­den men­tal health is­sues place on economies and the ‘weight of un­pro­duc­tiv­ity’ brought about by the fact that some 25 per cent of the population ex­pe­ri­ence a men­tal health con­di­tion at some point in their life­time – mean­ing both they and their care­givers can­not con­trib­ute to the de­vel­op­ment agenda.

Around the same time, the min­istry of Health launched the first men­tal health pol­icy, which, though com­pleted in 2015, took one year to be shared with the pub­lic. The pol­icy, put to­gether by var­i­ous men­tal health stake­hold­ers, the min­istry of Health and the WHO, has been aligned with key na­tional leg­is­la­tion, in­clud­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion, Vi­sion 2030 and the Kenya Health Pol­icy ( 2012-30 ) and seeks to re­form the men­tal health sys­tem.

It also aims to ad­dress, among other things, sys­temic chal­lenges and emerg­ing trends. It will mit­i­gate the bur­den of men­tal dis­or­ders and over­haul the Men­tal Health Act, Cap 248 from 1989 which is the main le­gal frame­work for men­tal health in Kenya. The pol­icy notes there is lack of lead­er­ship in the men­tal health field. It pro­poses a board to en­sure ser­vice pro­vi­sion, train­ing of ser­vice providers and guide­lines for those in the men­tal health sec­tor as well as to cre­ate pub­lic aware­ness.

Though beau­ti­ful on pa­per, the re­al­ity on the ground is dif­fer­ent. The sec­tor will re­main stuck un­til the men­tal health board be­comes op­er­a­tional. For this to hap­pen, there is need for a men­tal health bill which out­lines the board’s func­tions and du­ties. But ef­forts to put through this leg­is­la­tion have stalled be­cause of dif­fer­ences be­tween the Na­tional As­sem­bly and the Se­nate.


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