26th March, 2019
David Ngethe, Campaigns Assistant
“I’m fine. I’ll just focus on work.” This is an unfortunately common sentiment among career people who wish to avoid acknowledging the severity of their situation due to a number of reasons such as fear of learning the truth about one’s condition or extreme denial about the said condition. Unfortunately, this leads to people looking for alternatives and often more harmful coping mechanisms such as substance abuse and developing side effects such as physical illness.
The workplace is a great environment for growth, networking and development but it can also give way to exhaustion, stress and breakdowns if left unchecked. It is disheartening to see that most people forego their wellbeing in favour of securing company mergers, contracts, grants and other high profile objectives. While these are ideal, the institution might experience growth but at the cost of its most valuable resource.
Mental health illnesses manifest in multiple forms and they are complex and layered issues that require extensive care, empathy and patience. Some of these illnesses include:
- Anxiety-This is a constant state of worry, uneasiness and fear. It can lead to physical symptoms such as unusually quick heartbeat and breathing rates, excessive sweating and trembling.
- Schizophrenia-Schizophrenia affects one’s way of thinking. Some of the symptoms include: hallucinations, delusions, a lack of motivation and becoming withdrawn.
- Depression- This is an extreme state of sadness, detachment or indifference that has been caused by a multitude of internal and external factors.
- Bipolar disorder-This is a disorder that affects one’s mood and ranges from moments of extreme happiness and excitement (mania) to extreme sadness and grief (depression).
- Psychosis-Psychosis is a medical term used to describe hearing or seeing things, or holding unusual beliefs that other people do not share.
It should be noted that mental health illnesses overlap into one another; one condition can give way to another. The World Health Organization’s (WHO) profile on mental health in Kenya paints a worrying picture of our mental health landscape. Kenya does not have an official policy on mental health but it is included in the general health policy; this indicates that specialized responses to mental health in the country are not properly established to address mental health issues.
Government statistics highlight a harsh reality for the general population. WHO statistics note that the prevalence rate of common mental illness in the country stands at 10.3% percent (roughly four million people) with lifetime prevalence rate of suicidal thoughts stand at 7.9% and 1.9% lifetime prevalence rates stand at suicidal attempts.
During the 2017 World Mental Health Day celebrations, Dr. Jackson Kioko, the Director of Medical Services cautioned that depression threatens productivity as many workers cannot focus on their tasks and take time off from work; it contributes to 10% of time off work by workers. This means that in one year, an average of 36 work days is lost per depression episode.
Efforts in improving mental health are wanting with obstacles such as low awareness and stigma standing in the way of a wholesome mental health environment. The National and County Governments still have a lot to do in this regard but employers have an arguably more important role in facilitating employee wellness. Some of the most effective ways to ensure a favourable working environment include:
- Creating awareness on mental health in work spaces-This demystifies/de-stigmatizes mental health issues and promotes sensitive approaches to those affected by mental health issues.
- Discussion forums-This creates a safe space for people to share their experiences as well as their questions on the various facets of mental health.
- Rest and recreation in office settings-Specific periods across the day/week should be allocated to giving employees some time off to unwind and recover before they continue with their tasks. This leaves them rejuvenated and ready to complete their work.
- Time-off periods that are accommodating in relation to the time taken, financial compensation and overall understanding and sympathy from the employers and fellow staff members.
Despite all the challenges that accompany demystifying and de-stigmatizing mental health and mental health illnesses, Kenya is making stride in normalizing mental health in society and in legislative forums. One of these efforts is the Mental Health Policy in Kenya (2015-2030), a policy that was developed by the Ministry of Health and stakeholders in public health issues. It is hoped that this policy, along with the proposed Mental Health Bill (2018) that the workplace will become an accommodative space for healthy and open discussions as well as effective reforms on mental health issues.