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Naked truth about inner struggles of artistes in Kenya

People working in the creative industry may have a way with words, but when it comes to mental health issues, they suffer in silence because of the stigma associated with the subject

Barry Silah @obel_barry

Eric Otieno’s poems are potent; they evoke a kaleidoscope of emotions – love, hate, joy, sadness, despair and hope.

When you meet him for the first time, he exudes an aura of confidence, a man who knows how to play with words.

Beneath this veneer lies a man who has fought many personal battles with depression and like many people in the creative industry; his bubbly nature can easily conceal his inner conflict.

When he took the podium at an event at the creatives garage dubbed:  Naked Souls: honest conversation on mental health in the creative industry, the mask came off as he spoke about his struggles with depression, a subject considered a taboo.

Otieno, 35, a poet spoke about how domestic violence at home and watching his mother cry everyday when he was growing up drove him to the brink of suicide.

Not so many people understood what he was going through because he chose to bottle it in. Instead of speaking out, he became rebellious.

“To be honest, I did not know how to face up to the issue, especially with my own family. I literally shut out everyone because for me it was a difficult and dark period in my life.

It was scary because I felt life did not really make sense and at this point my situation began to worsen and suddenly people took notice,” says the chatty artiste whose relationships were ruined because of his condition.

Statistics from the World Health Organisation show that one in four people in the world will be affected by mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives.

Around 450 million people currently suffer from such conditions, placing mental disorders among the leading causes of ill-health and disability worldwide. In Kenya alone, at least 1.9 million people are living with mental health issues.

A growing demographic that is increasingly affected by mental illness are artistes around the globe. Popular celebrities such as Deejay Avicii of Sweden and Linkin Park Band member, Chester Bennington are some of the artistes who have committed suicide after battling depression.

For Otieno, dealing with issues such as post-traumatic stress is usually difficult because of poor perceptions about mental health. “A lot of us leave in denial until it is too late. However, everybody else have their own means of dealing with such concerns.

Therapy is important and it helped me a lot, but only after getting rid of my stubborn nature of refusing to seek help,” adds the artiste who lost close friends as a result of depression.

The past two years for him were particularly difficult because he had no job and had come off a toxic relationship. He took to Facebook to pen his feelings, which opened a door for him to get help.

“People empathised with my situation and that gave me inspiration. Writing my story and experience was inspiring. I got love and appreciation from my close circle, which was important,” says Otieno, who has attended several forums and interviews to talk about his health.

As for Liz Kilili, Director at Creative Garage, her struggles with mental health issues are compelling. She is living with Bipolar Disorder, which created a lot of uncertainty in her life. Her relationships were destroyed because many close people did not understand her condition.

“My mother just prayed and avoided facing the situation head- on. My romantic life was also hit hard because I felt I was becoming a burden to my partner,” she says. Liz at some point got overwhelmed and attempted committing suicide five times.

In 2015, she lost a friend who took her life and this put a lot of terrible thoughts in her head. It has been a bumpy ride for the multi-talented artiste as she sought an exit route through expressions such as film, music and poetry.

“I got to build my relationships over time with those close to me and accept my state. I also penned a book all talking about the situation with mental health awareness,” adds the mother of one.

Cost implication of treating mental issues are usually a big deterrent for those seeking help. Liz spends at least Sh38,000 every two months for medication and therapy, which has dented her finances.

This is despite having a cover of Sh10 million from her Insurance. She feels ripped off. “We cannot treat and eradicate these conditions effectively if the medication is out of reach.

Most insurance firms do not cover such cases, thus hundreds are left to suffer. I feel most hospitals are out to rip off patients, which is unfortunate,” says the artiste.

Experts warn that stigma is killing the progress in treating mental-related cases in the country. According to Clinical Psychologist Joyce Ngugi, the immediate social circle of a patient should be willing to walk with them through the recovery journey.

“These are vulnerable and sensitive persons and they demand a lot of care. The families and friends have the duty to walk with them through the process so that they do not feel neglected or abandoned.

It is an essential bit of therapy because a familiar environment helps with the healing process,” she says. Counselling Psychologist, Muthoni Gatheca, takes issue with lack of resources to tackle mental health issues.

“The Government has a policy document, but it does not seem to have impact. The infrastructure is wanting. However, our education system also is not explicit enough and suppresses what we should know about mental health in general,” she says.

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