Uhuru should leave a legacy on mental health
- It is time the National Assembly took the bold step of repealing section 226 and similar statutes that only serve to worsen the pain a mentally ill person goes through.
Last week, the government and several partners organised the first national mental health conference to review the state of mental health in Kenya and to make commitments aimed at improving the situation.
While numerous presentations were made, what was important in this meeting was the overwhelming commitment by government officials to push forward the national mental health agenda.
This commitment reflects a renewed focus on mental health that was triggered by the President’s Madaraka Day directive to the Ministry of Health to develop policies to tackle mental health problems.
For a long time, we have agitated, mostly in vain, for increased attention to the mental health of our people. Today, we need to reflect on some specific measures that will produce quick results.
Firstly, we applaud the government’s decision to finally grant Mathari Hospital semi-autonomous status.
After this announcement by the Principal Secretary, we expect the hospital’s board to be set up very quickly.
The board’s first task should be to recruit a highly competent Chief Executive as well as other senior staff for the facility.
The next step will be to have the board and management team prepare a budget that reflects the hospital’s new status, and set up a plan of action to see it climb and occupy its rightful place at the apex of mental health care, training and research in this region.
Secondly, certain legislative measures need to be taken to help implement the mental health policy that was launched with much fanfare a couple of years ago.
Other than the ongoing revision of the Mental Health Act of 1989, there is urgent need for amendments to the Penal Code to decriminalise symptoms of mental illness.
Specifically, Section 226 of the Penal Code declares attempted suicide a criminal offence, which makes it difficult for some people to seek help when they have suicidal thoughts.
Indeed, even healthcare providers sometimes feel hamstrung when dealing with patients with suicidal behaviour, and the possibility of legal justice system involvement is a huge factor in this.
It is time the National Assembly took the bold step of repealing section 226 and similar statutes that only serve to worsen the pain a mentally ill person goes through.
Finally, one expects that resources will be allocated to set up the national and county-level structures that are required to implement the mental health policy.
We must now put our money where our mouth is, and take concrete steps to improve our people’s mental health.
For a long time, we have neglected the need to train, recruit and deploy adequate numbers of mental health workers, to allocate resources for mental health research and to establish mental heath services across the length and breadth of our country.
This is a worthy legacy for any government, and for any leader worth their weight in salt!
Lukoye Atwoli is Associate Professor of Psychiatry, Moi University School of Medicine.