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Kenya Holds First Mental Health Conference

FILE - A Kenyan talks on his mobile phone outside the Ministry of Health headquarters in Nairobi, Kenya, Dec. 8, 2016. On Nov. 21 and 22, 2019, Kenya held its first mental health conference, steered by its Ministry of Health.

The Kenyan government this week hosted its first-ever national mental health conference, with the aim of making better mental health a public priority and part of the socioeconomic agenda.

Onyango Otieno, 31, grew up in a home that he described as "very violent."

Otieno said his father also grew up in a violent home and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder passed down from his own father. Otieno said his grandfather was diagnosed with PTSD years after coming home from fighting in World War II.

"He [fathered] 30 kids, so you can imagine what the village became with someone who struggled with such an issue which nobody could even identify in the '80s," Otieno said. "So my dad, transferring that to his house — violence, violence, violence — and by the time I was 15, I think that was when my depression really started and I struggled with it for a very long time."

Now a mental health advocate, Otieno runs a support group of about 200 people, where storytelling is used to get past common stigmas against sharing mental health issues. Fewer than five years ago, such spaces were not available, he said.

This week, Kenya held its first mental health conference, steered by its Ministry of Health.

Dr. Rudi Eggers, the World Health Organization representative in Kenya, spoke on the inaugural day of the two-day conference.

"Mental health still maintains a neglected part of the global efforts to improve health," Eggers said. "People with mental health conditions experience widespread human rights violations, discrimination and stigma. More than 80 percent of people experiencing mental health conditions, including individuals experiencing neurological and substances abuse, are without any form of quality affordable mental health care support."

Government support

On Thursday, President Uhuru Kenyatta directed the Ministry of Health to establish a task force to look into the status of mental health in Kenya and provide findings that he said would assist the government in allocation of resources.

The principal secretary at the Ministry of Health, Susan Mochache, said government was focused on making mental health a national priority.

"In Kenya, mental illnesses are a significant cause of morbidity and we have an estimated 25 percent of our outpatients and up to 40 percent of our inpatients suffering from these conditions," she said.

According to the World Health Organization, the number of suicides reported in Kenya rose by 58 percent between 2008 and 2017. Out of the 421 suicide cases in 2017, about 75 percent were men.