A Crazy Friday

Today (May 17, 2016) marks the launch of Kenya’s first Mental Health Policy. This is a laudable move in a nation rooted in taboos about mental disorders. With 88 psychiatrists and just 427 nurses, Kenya’s mental health sector is disturbingly understaffed. For many, the name Mathari Hospital evokes images of a nut-house where “the crazy ones” are imprisoned. It is my hope that the enactment of this policy will be the first step towards reforming our understanding of mental health in Kenya.

The following is a re-post from an event I attended two years ago:

As the sun sets on this year’s World Mental Health Day, dozens of Kenyans make their way up Statehouse road, leaning forward, almost parallel to the steep incline, before turning off onto Statehouse Crescent and catching a break strolling down the hill towards the Pawa254 offices.

I am one of these strangers, and we have chosen to spend our Friday evening at a free screening of an American film depicting the plight of people living with mental health problems.
 
 The movie, Call Me Crazy, features the lives of three women; Lucy, Robin, Maggie, and one man; Eddie, who have to live with different mental health disorders.
 
 Lucy has Schizophrenia, and on some occasions she hears voices in her head that nobody else can hear. At times she takes on a violent personality and there was even a day she locked herself and her younger sister in a room and tried to kill her. Since that day, Lucy’s family made a habit of taking all the doors off the hinges whenever she came home to visit from the rehabilitation center.

The second story traces the plight of a teenage girl, Grace, who has to live with and take care of her mother, Robin, who has bipolar disorder. On some days, Grace’s mother is perfectly normal and a joy to be around.
 
 But on rare moments that grow frequent over time, something seems to come over her and she goes on a deranged tirade that freaks out everyone around her, including Grace’s friends.

Eddie is a middle aged stand-up comedian who spends his day making people laugh at the club, and his evening in a fetal position on his bed feeling depressed. His wife does not understand these episodes of depression and thinks she is to blame for what Eddie is feeling. It takes the intervention of a counselor for the wife to understand that Eddie’s depression is clinical and he needs her love and care.

The fifth and final vignette is that of Maggie, an army officer who had been repeatedly raped by a senior officer. She develops Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after she lets the ordeal fester without talking to anyone about it.
 
 Occasionally, Maggie, a single mother, would develop violent tendencies and at one point she almost kills her own father and son.
 
 Sitawa Wafula, a Kenyan mental health activist who is hosting the free film screening says she hopes these stories will provide a much needed window into the lives of people living with mental health problems.

“I know I can’t solve all of Kenya’s psychological problems but I feel challenged to create a structure of sorts that can be built on,” she says in one of her tweets inviting people to watch the film.

Ms Wafula also battles bipolar disorder and she identifies with Grace’s mom in the film. She tells us that people with psychological problems need love and acceptance more than anything else, even when people don’t understand them.
 
Sitawa steals the few minutes during the credits of Call Me Crazy to share her own story. She reveals that she was raped when she was younger and it is because she did not get early psychological intervention that she developed a bipolar disorder.
 
 “I would hate for anyone to go through what I have to live with. That is why I have dedicated my life to doing the little I can to cause awareness in my little corner of the world,” she tells us before going to a side table to serve us tea and snacks.
 
 Ms Wafula believes that mental health patients need their humanity to be acknowledged and to be given a listening ear. “Many families often ignore and isolate and hide their relatives dealing with psychological issues because they see them as an embarrassment and an unwanted baggage. But we are people too.”
 
 Earlier that Friday, Sitawa had posted on her Twitter page that she was looking forward to the Health Cabinet Secretary’s speech to see what the government is planning to do for mental health in Kenya. So I have carried a copy of the speech with me, and I hand it to her just before the film starts rolling.
 
 Speaking at Mathari National Teaching and Referral Hospital where he presided over the commemoration of this year’s World Mental Health Day, Health CS James Macharia mostly listed mental health statistics and outlined facts about different mental health issues.
 
 “I appeal to our partners to collaborate with my Ministry in the provision of quality mental health care services to all in our country. It is the responsibility of all of us to do everything possible to reduce the burden of mental illness in this country,” he concluded.
 
 I ask Ms Wafula what she thinks of the CS’s speech. She sighs and hands the paper back to me and says: “There’s nothing there that I can’t find on Google. Once again, the government has disappointed us.”
 
 But this will not discourage her. Giving up is not an option. She is planning to have similar film screenings in other parts of the country, including Ngong and Kisumu, which are next on her itinerary.

Her attitude reminds me of a character in the film, Grace, whose mother is bipolar and she is given an assignment in school to write an essay about her hero.

“The reason I chose my mother as the hero for this essay is because she faces her battles every day, even though she may never win the war,” says Grace standing before her classmates as the scene fades.