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Living with mental illness in Kenya

NAIROBI, Kenya, Oct 12 – Twenty-nine-year-old Geoffrey Sakwa is mentally handicapped: He cannot eat, drink, or even bathe without help. He sleeps poorly and needs attention throughout the night. Being accident-prone, he regularly needs first aid. But his parents love him dearly. They cherish his mild, kind, affectionate ways. They feel proud of their son despite his disabilities.

Due to the uniqueness of his condition, his father Humphrey Mugaka had to leave his job in the government’s Department of Defence to spend both quality and quantity time with Sakwa.

“I had to retire early in 1995 due to the problem of this boy. He started a problem of running away from home right from the age of four until today when he is 29 years,” he narrates.

Mr Mugaka spoke exclusively to Capital News and explained that it reached a point where he had to choose between his job and his son; he chose the better option, ‘taking care of his son.’

He however said that the path he chose was not easy as he had to deal with many obstacles and challenges.

“We tried to take him to school for the mentally handicapped but they were not able to take care of him because he was running away,” he explained.

He pointed out that he tried different schools but all to no avail. “We took him to Waithaka special school, Njoro Salvation Army for children with special needs and then we went down to Kisii Secondary school but neither of them was successful,” he stated.

His son appreciated the Herculean task his parents had taken to keep him alive and ensure that his basic needs are catered for. Though he is mentally handicapped, he expressed deep gratitude for the efforts made by his parents.

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“I want to tell my parents to continue with the same spirit. They help me a lot and I really appreciate it. I would like to be a farmer when I grow up,” he said.
“I will plant kales, tomatoes and even do a bit of poultry farming.”

Many parents meet the news that their children are mentally disabled with a mixture of shock and disbelief and this leads them to out rightly reject the notion that their progeny has a defect.

This is what happened in the case of Alex Maina and his wife when they discovered that their six month-old-son had a mental disability.  Alex recounted that when the news was broken to them, it felt as though their house had collapsed and buried them.

“Out there I had been seeing people with different types of disabilities but I never knew that I would be affected.”

“After sometime, we were advised that this child has to live on drugs during his lifetime as this condition can only be controlled by drugs,” he went further to explain saying that the only problem was that the prescribed drugs were expensive.

The Kenya Society for the Mentally Handicapped Chief Executive Officer Edah Maina stressed the need to differentiate between mental disability and illness.
She said that doing so is key to taking the first step towards helping the affected people.

“There is a clear difference between mental illness and mental disability. People with mental disability are those with limitations with intellectual functioning and adaptive behaviour,” she advised.

“That means that they have below average intellect and have difficulty in doing self help skills and other obvious life skills like toileting.”

She stated that each mental disorder involves a cluster of specific symptoms. Manic-depression, for example, is an emotional seesaw, oscillating between exhilarating highs and devastating lows.

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In major depression, however, the patient often suffers a severe, paralyzing, and unrelenting sadness. Anxiety disorders, such as phobias, may virtually paralyze victims with irrational fears.

“There is also the difference where those with mental illness will only present abnormal behaviour when they are in crisis but their intellect is okay and they have normal life skills. They can help themselves,” the KSMH Chief Executive Officer stated.

Ms Maina observed that despite the long-term nature of some mental disorders, with appropriate treatment many sufferers can have stable, productive lives.

“Those with mental disability have got a lot of heath needs in line of essential therapies where they will be taking like medicine on a daily basis if they are both mentally disabled and emotionally or behaviourally disturbed or maybe if they are both mentally disabled and epileptic,” she said.

Unfortunately, many languish for years without getting help. Just as a serious heart condition requires a heart specialist, mental illness needs the attention of those who know how to treat such conditions.

It is in this regard that the former Head of State Daniel Arap Moi decided to use the Moi Day celebrations this year to recognise the plight of the mentally handicapped.

“The number of the disabled people within the Republic is 3.5 million. Who cares for them? You look at these children and they are being cared for by those who have decided to support them and thus we should not support by only talking but also practically,” Mr Moi said.

Indeed, the words madness, insanity, lunacy evoke fear and images of padded cells and straitjackets. However, not everyone with a mental disorder is a raving maniac. Nor is everyone with an odd personality or an idiosyncrasy mentally ill.
Impaired mental ability can result from genetic problems like birth injuries, early brain infections, and dietary deficiencies, as well as drug, alcohol, or chemical exposure. In the majority of cases, the cause is unknown.

Following such a diagnosis, what course is open to parents?

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The first step is to recognize the symptoms. The presence of a mental disorder may not be immediately diagnosed. Friends and family members might attribute the symptoms to hormonal changes, physical ailments, personality weaknesses, or the result of difficult circumstances. Significant changes in sleep, diet, or behaviour may indicate something more serious. An examination by a professional can lead to effective treatment and improved quality of life for your loved one.

One also needs to become informed about the ailment. People with mental disorders usually have limited capacity to research their own condition. Hence, the information you gather from current and reliable sources can help you to understand what your loved one is going through. It can also help you to talk openly and knowledgeably with others.

However, with appropriate treatment many sufferers can have stable, productive lives. Unfortunately, many languish for years without getting help. Just as a serious heart condition requires a heart specialist, mental illness needs the attention of those who know how to treat such conditions. Psychiatrists, for example, can prescribe medicine that when taken consistently can help control mood, ease anxiety, and straighten out distorted thinking patterns.

Those with mental disorders may not realise that they need help. You might suggest that the sufferer see a particular doctor, read some useful articles, or have a conversation with someone who has successfully managed a similar disorder.

It may be that your loved one is not receptive to your advice. But by all means intervene if someone in your care is at risk of harming himself or others.


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