Economic hardships exacerbated by the pandemic as well as the stigma surrounding suicide attempt survivors are seen as possible reasons behind the mental health crisis reaching a new peak.
Janet Kerubo Otwori, an orphaned student in Kenya, thought she would be accepted to the Kereri Girls High School after excelling in her exams. She trekked to the school with her uniform paired with slippers to get herself registered on August 2. But she was sent away because she did not have school fees and her guardian wasn’t able to afford it.
Next, she drank pesticide to end her life. Otwori was luckily saved after she was rushed to the hospital. She made it to her dream school with the help of police officers who raised funds for her education.
Many others in the country, on the other hand, are losing their lives to suicide at an alarming rate.
According to the Kenyan Health Ministry’s records, 483 people died by suicide in the past three months before June, marking a worrying spike on the annual average of about 317 cases. The police said they “have never recorded such a high number of suicides before and this is not only alarming but calls for remedial measures.”
Dr Chitayi Murabula, President of the Kenya Psychiatric Association (KPA), says the numbers are likely to be much higher than the official tally because the attempt to commit suicide has been criminalised in the country.
“This is basically saying that suicide attempt is stigmatised both from the community level and religious level. The general atmosphere (around the issue) is shame, punishment and fear,” Dr Murabula told TRT World.
According to Section 236 of the penal code, an attempt to suicide is a misdemeanour, which can lead to imprisonment of up to one year. A person who tries to take his or her own life is likely to be both fined and imprisoned --- a major obstacle keeping people with suicidal thoughts from seeking outside help.
KPA, headed by Dr Marabula, is now jointly working with the Kenya National Commission of Human Rights for a petition to the High Court of Kenya seeking to end the criminalisation of suicide. They demand the court to declare the section of the penal code unconstitutional saying that it infringes upon the rights of people to access health care in Kenya.
“That’s why the numbers in Kenya are generally underreported,” he explained, adding that the increase is, however, a self-reflection of the issues within Kenya.
The reason behind the rise, or the general problem of high suicide rates before the recent increase isn’t clear. But both the Health Ministry and Dr Murabula says Covid 19 pandemic had a major role in mental health problems in the country.
The pandemic triggered different kinds of hardships and caused mental health issues and emotional stress to a lot of people, the Health Ministry explained.
Dr Murabula says the government has allocated below 0.5 percent of the annual budget to mental health, which further complicates the situation and it's the ordinary people who suffer in the end.
“Just like elsewhere in the world, mental disorders make up to 13 percent of all disorders and diseases, and the budgetary allocation should reflect that,” Dr Murabula said.
“We were so uninvested even before Covid-19. We have an unmet need, as high as 90 percent, meaning that if 10 people are suffering from mental disorders, only one will probably get the health services they need,” he added.
Out of 175 countries, Kenya ranked 114 in The World Population review, placing it amongst the nations where suicide rates are highest in the world. The study was carried out before the pandemic exacerbated the suicide problem in the country, which had a rate of at least 6.5 suicides per 1,000,000 people.
The Ministry of Health is in the process of developing a National Suicide Prevention Strategy and Program between now and 2026 in line with the World Health Organisation (WHO) guidelines. A free hotline for suicide prevention and psychological support is among the steps that the program will include.
In May, WHO launched a Kickstarter for mental health investment with the participation of over 100 experts to discuss solutions as well as the challenges the country faces on the mental health front. The investment case was funded by the Russian Federation.
The WHO previously welcomed the country's interest in bringing policy reforms to improve mental health conditions. However, Dr Murabula points out that with no budget allocated for mental health, it’s difficult to prevent suicides and the stigma around it.
“Instead of punishing people who suffer mental health problems, they should be treated by expanding mental healthcare services,” he said.