New Program in Kenya Brings Hope to Mentally Ill

For Stephen Juma, it began with depression that became steadily worse.  "I had battled an inner voice that kept telling me, ‘Kill yourself,’" said the 40-year-old father of twelve. "It was when I met a pastor in the project that I realized what I was facing could be solved by opening up."   While Juma was able to find help at a nearby medical clinic, most people in Kenya who are battling mental illness are not so fortunate.   With only 500 psychiatrists and psychologists for a country with 40 million people getting the proper help is often impossible. 

What makes the problem even worse is the widespread belief that mental illness is caused by evil spirits which can only be driven out by traditional healers.   Though most cases of mental illness go undiagnosed, largely due to the stigma involved, stories of men, women, and children being seriously injured and killed during exorcisms meant to "drive out" evil spirits are not uncomon.

In different parts of the country,  there are far too many people with mental illness either being confined to their homes by family members or else abandoned to wander the streets in search of food or shelter.  “When there are signs of mental illness, the community member first takes their relatives to the traditional healers so that demons are cast out,” said Dr. Victoria Mutiso, director of the Africa Mental Health Foundation.   But a new initiative working with a Canadian government program and a U.S. hospital is beginning to change that. 

Rather than undermining traditional healers who are paid by family members to heal mentally ill relatives, the Africa Mental Health Foundation is recruiting these healers to identify people in need.   With a $500,000 grant from the Canadian government and $500,000 from the Makueni County government, workers from the Foundation are educating more than 160 community health workers, faith healers, and members of the clergy on symptoms of mental illness and how they can be treated.   Victoria Mutiso, director of the Africa Mental Health Foundation, says they are making progress.

"It took a lot of dialogue and still takes more even now, but it is working," she says.   Mutiso, who is also a clinical psychologist, admits that there is still a wide gap between traditional medicine and modern medicine.  "For us to get a traditional healer to write a referral note, which they do and give to the patient and the patient takes to the clinic and clinician accepts and takes that referral note, is in itself a huge barrier broken." 

Many traditional healers are openly supporting the program as well.   Queen Muli, a Makueni County healer, denies any tension so far with clergy or medical doctors.  "We have no problem since there are those sicknesses that we can treat and those we cannot," said Muli. "I have referred to the clinic people with problems such as alcohol abuse, epilepsy and others."    As for whether these referrals may end up costing her business, she added:  "We are one community. Even when we are not in this program, we meet in social gatherings. I don’t have a problem with them, and neither do I think the clinics and their officers are taking away our income."

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