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Overcoming mental health stigma in Kenya

No one should have to suffer in silence. We are raising awareness of mental health so that more people can get the support they need.

Agnes McGrane | 25 Mar 2021

Credit: Cheshire Disability Services Kenya

Credit: Cheshire Disability Services Kenya

Almost a quarter of us will be diagnosed with a mental illness at some point in our lifetime. But unfortunately, those struggling with their mental health will often face rejection from their families and communities due to stigma and a lack of understanding. This can make it extremely difficult for people to open up and access the help they need.

In Kenya, mental health issues can sometimes be seen as a spiritual problem rather than a medical one. For Festus, a young Kenyan, who started to struggle with depression and suicidal thoughts at university, this was devastating.

After Festus bravely reached out for help, his parents were unsupportive. They did not believe that he needed medical help and refused to pay for the medication he was prescribed by a doctor for depression.

Festus then had to face the added stress of the fall out with his parents, and the need to support himself financially. He was forced to find work to pay for his medication, while still trying to keep up with his studies.

Festus felt alone and hopeless; his mental and physical health was deteriorating, he didn’t have enough money to survive on, and he didn’t know where to turn for help.

Finding support

It was at this time that he was connected with a local organisation, Cheshire Disability Services Kenya (CDSK), who are working with young people facing physical and mental difficulties.

They provided Festus with training in business skills, which enabled him to start his own business making and selling soap. After the business got underway, he was able to afford his medication and meet his other basic needs.

Festus then started attending monthly support groups with other young people with physical or mental health issues. He finally found a safe space where he could share his thoughts and challenges without fear of being judged.

Festus now has a business making and selling liquid soap, which means he can afford his medication. 

Festus now has a business making and selling liquid soap, which means he can afford his medication. 

Spreading the message

‘There can often be a lot of stigma and shame around mental health issues which can prevent people opening up or reaching out for support,’ says Gladys Wathanda, who oversees Tearfund’s work in Kenya.

‘We are working with local faith leaders to raise awareness of mental health issues, set up support groups, and ensure that churches are a place of safety rather than a source of stigma for those struggling with mental health. This is helping to break down the barriers caused by lack of understanding of mental health conditions in society.’

Thanks to the support he received, Festus was able to return to his studies and in 2018 he graduated with a diploma in film production from Kenyatta University. He now has regular counselling, takes his medication, and is growing his business.

Festus is passionate about supporting others who have gone through similar experiences, and he now leads a support group where he encourages other young people with mental health struggles.

Festus knows the pain of facing discrimination and rejection due to mental health, but he is hopeful that community attitudes will change as more people like him speak out.

Please pray

  • Thank God that Festus was able to get the support that he needed. Pray that he will be strengthened as he speaks up about mental health and supports others.
  • Pray that negative attitudes towards mental health will start to shift. Ask that the church worldwide will be equipped to play an active role in dispelling myths and stigmas.
  • Lift up all those who are suffering with depression and mental health issues. Pray that they will be comforted and get the support they need.

Festus’s story was first shared by Disability Services Kenya through Tearfund Learn – Tearfund’s hub of free resources to help equip churches and partners around the world to address poverty and injustice in their communities.

Agnes McGrane

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