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Families shoulder burden of mental illnesses

In a country where one in every four outpatients and four in every 10 inpatients suffer from mental disorders families are bearing the brunt of  this disease burden

Grace Wachira @yaa_grace

At 38 years, Phoebe Ruguru still lives under her parents’ roof. Even as the family watch and care for her, they remain careful lest she turns violent. You see, she is mentally unstable. Two years ago, she clobbered her mother, Josephine Wangari, and were it not for the people who answered to her cry of help, things would have been worse.

Wamaitha lives in her own world. She doesn’t talk—she only makes sounds. She has to be guided to do even the easiest of tasks such as taking a shower or eat. Her mother says she noticed her child was different when she didn’t hit milestones like the rest of her children.

Brain damage

“I went into prolonged labour and it was even tougher because she was a big baby, who was born through normal delivery weighing four kilogrammes. She did not cry at birth.

At three months, I noticed that my daughter, still wouldn’t cry and was never attracted to light. I would move my fingers around her face and she could not react. That was when I knew  it was serious. We went back to the hospital and I was told her brain was not well developed,” Wangari recalls.

Ruguru’s speech is slurred, but with time, the family has learnt to communicate with her. From an early age, she was and still is easily irritable. She was enrolled at a special school in Nakuru, but it did not help.

Corinne Kahi has suffered from depression since high school.

“She was six when we tried to enroll her, but her violent tendencies saw her spend most of her days outside class. She does not know how to separate her right from wrong. If a guest comes home and she is dressing, in a split second, she would come out running half-dressed or not dressed at all,” she sighs. 

The family decided against admitting Ruguru to a mental institution. “She needs a lot of care and we do not mind taking care of her,” her mother says.

At her age, Ruguru should have been already married with children. But the family has never gotten tired of taking care of her. The family has never locked up their daughter. “If anything, we travel with her so that we watch over her. My daughter just needs a bit more patience,” she adds.

While some people like Ruguru develop mental illness at an early age, others develop it later in life. Many factors contribute to the onset of a mental illness. These include genetics, prenatal brain damage, brain defects or injuries, stress, bereavement, relationship breakdown, physical and sexual abuse, unemployment, social isolation, and major physical illness or disability, among others.

According to the 2015-2030 Kenya Mental Health Policy, one in every four outpatients (25 per cent) and four in every 10 (40 per cent) of in-patients in health facilities suffer from a mental condition. The most frequent of diagnosis of mental illnesses made in general hospital settings are depression, substance abuse, stress and anxiety disorders.

Bout of depression

The mental strain took a toll on 25-year-old Corinne Kahi and she slowly sank into depression. “In between Form Two and Three, I had a tough time and was dealing with a lot of personal issues that I felt were private and so I did not share them with anyone,” she says.

In Form Three, she sank deeper and even attempted to commit suicide. “I remember in 2009 taking a lot of pills and waking up hours later. I had told no one, so nobody noticed,” the poet and musician who is currently training in media recalls. 

She turned to religion for a peace of mind. And in 2014, she sought professional help. “When I told my family and friends about it back then, they were shocked, but have been supportive,” she says.

Just last year, she suffered another bout of depression. “When it happened again, I turned to my circle of friends that I am accountable to. Sometimes it’s just small comments or actions that are triggers. Overtime, I have learnt to steer away from them. I can’t let that type of sadness to creep in,” intimates the artist.

Catherine Gachutha, a counselling psychologist says the society should be more alert on mental illnesses. “It starts with simple things such as keeping to oneself and isolating from people. Such people prefer their own company. As friends and family of such victims, you need to talk to them regularly, check up on them and keep them occupied,” she says.

The more physical symptoms will include lethargy, hallucinations and headaches.

“Some may change their physical appearances. By no means should you let them enjoy their own company. That way, they begin to have suicidal thoughts. Try to understand what they are going through and derail them from the path they are treading. If that does not work, seek professional psychiatric help before things get worse,” she says.

She also adds that in cases where the victims are clinically insane, they should be admitted to institutions. “But that depends on the levels of mental illness. Some are sober enough to cohabit they are those that need to be admitted and observed as well as get treated,” she adds.

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