Pandemic driving Kenyans into jaws of mental health issues

Tuesday June 23 2020

A report shows that Kenyans are anxious, lonely, confused, stressed, helpless and angry as Covid-19 positive cases continue to increase every day. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Do you often feel irritable or have the constant feeling of wanting to be alone and isolate yourself from others? Are you drinking a bit too much or starting to have unhealthy coping mechanisms? If so, you could be experiencing depression.

Depression is among the most common mental illnesses globally, affecting more than 1.9 million people in Kenya alone. In the past decade, cases of suicide in the country have risen at an alarming rate of 58 per cent with data showing that more men are likely to die through suicide than women.

According to mental health advocate Victor Khamisi, the problem could lie on the extensive burden of masculinity, which has often been used against men as they are viewed immune to and devoid of feelings or expressing emotions.

“Men are constantly stigmatised and seen as superhuman. However, when left alone, men battle serious trauma that leads to depression and in some extreme cases, suicide. I know this because I have experienced it before,” he said.


The 26-year-old, who has battled depression since childhood, says he was taught that men are not supposed to show emotion and he should take every challenge thrown to him ‘like a man’. This expectation of society consequently resulted to him attempting suicide three times.


Being a victim of sodomy as a teenager, Mr Khamisi was in constant emotional and physical pain, yet he never spoke out. Even after he moved out of his uncle’s home, he faced constant rejection that took a heavy toll on him.

“Because of the constant abuse, I decided to go live in the streets. I still had a lot of unresolved issues which led to further depression. I remember trying to take my life twice by drinking acid,” an emotional Mr Khamisi says.

Psychiatrist Lukoye Atwoli says depression in men requires keen observation, noting that it is crucial for people to familiarize themselves with the diagnostic criteria in persons presenting with symptoms.

Depression is mainly characterised by the onset of low moods or loss of interest in usual activities. This is accompanied by other behaviour including changes in appetite or weight, changes in sleep quality and quantity, excessive guilt, sense of worthlessness or hopelessness, irritability and often suicidal thoughts or behaviour.


“Anyone experiencing these symptoms should seek a consultation with a mental health professional. Depression is treatable and most people are able to continue with their normal life after treatment,” he said.

Khamisi said people do not take time to really look beyond the surface and find out why others behave the way they do. “I was battling serious internal demons. As I never spoke of my past trauma, many aspects of my life got affected. I could never hold a job for long, I would often come late, under perform and eventually get fired,” he said.

The causes of mental illness in men can be classified in three broad categories that interact with each other in complex ways. The first is biological, which include genetic factors which determines one's predisposition or risk of getting a particular illness.

“Other biological factors include brain development and structure, illnesses that could have affected the nervous system, head injury, and general state of physical health, including presence of chronic illnesses,” Dr Atwoli noted.

Psychological and social factors also play a role in mental illness, where the former involves aspects of personality and coping mechanisms, while the latter includes how episodes of illnesses are dealt with as well as the state of the environment of the victim.

“Where you grew up or live, who you live with, what is considered socially acceptable behaviour, and quality of interpersonal relationships are important social factors that can contribute to one’s state of mind,” he added.


To effectively tackle male depression, men need to be encouraged to talk freely about their feelings. However, Psychiatric Disability Organisation (PDO) Kenya founder Iregi Mwenja says society is not used to men voicing out their issues, noting that such efforts are often mocked, met with outright hostility and labelled chauvinism.

“There is a normalised subjugation of male problems and attacks on masculinity which has a significant contribution to rising cases of mental issues, including increased violence among men,” he said.

Mr Mwenja, whose organisation provides free mental health services expressed concern that a few men are open to seeking treatment.

“There has been more focus on women rights, but it is important to note that men’s rights are human rights and today's marginalization of men should be addressed with equal sensitivity if not more as women issues,” he said.

While trying to tackle issues surrounding mental health, Mr Mwenja emphasises on breaking the social perspective of ‘toxic masculinity’ which he says has led to the misunderstanding of issues men face.

To rectify this, he says that society needs to start adopting strategies that look at men and masculinity as allies in men’s mental health, noting that a change of perception will be help win this battle and not changing an inherent trait of a man.

Further, a report has shown that Kenyans are anxious, lonely, confused, stressed, helpless and angry as Covid-19 positive cases continue to increase every day.


They could probably be depressed, with an Infotrak research showing that 81 per cent of the population feel anxious and stressed about what is happening.

The research shows that 61 per cent of Kenyans feel lonely, 52 per cent feel helpless and 33 per cent feel angry.

As such, Health CS Mutahi Kagwe on Sunday described depression as “a silent, invisible killer that is affecting our nation and the globe.”

Mr Kagwe said Covid-19 had affected Kenyans lives, and particularly their mental health “in ways untold.”

According to the Health CS, the public health actions which the government took to combat the spread of the novel corona virus have brought about anxiety and feelings of isolation while for other Kenyans, the containment measures have yielded feelings of suffocation.

Some of the measures the government took include curfew, cessation of movement, social-distancing, wearing of masks, washing of hands and sanitizing.

“Such measures can produce a wide range of psychological effects, including post-traumatic stress symptoms, depression, feelings of confusion, anger and fear, and even substance misuse,” says Dr Habil Otanga, a lecturer at the Department of Psychology, UoN.

In a write-up, Dr Otanga says “overwhelming feelings of boredom, loneliness, anger, isolation and frustration are related to poor mental health outcomes.”