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Why Don’t We Talk About This? Why Kenya needs to start talking about mental health

At Be Forward, Africa is our passion. We want to share our passion by bringing to life research and stories from across the continent.

A mental health crisis in Kenya

Africa is facing a mental health crisis. Over the past year, mental health stories have hit the mainstream media headlines, especially in Kenya, the focus of our study.  We wanted to understand what was going on with mental health in Kenya, and to evaluate if the country was indeed facing a crisis.

Research into mental health in Africa has been a neglected priority. Compared to physical diseases, NCDs (Non-Communicable Diseases) have received little research focus; there are still many unknowns where mental health is concerned in Africa.

At Be Forward, we wanted to address this gap and to lay a benchmark for future research by shedding light on mental health in Kenya. How do Kenyans navigate around mental health? What does it mean to them, and how does this impact on their lives? How are changing socio-economic factors impacting on mental health? What impact are global shifts, government, mental health professionals and grassroot advocates having on the mental health agenda?

If the country is facing a crisis, we want to evaluate not only what is being done to address this, but alsogauge if people’s views around mental health were changing (or not). Our research also enables us to identify which challenges and opportunities exist to advancing the mental health agenda in Kenya.

We wanted to primarily understand the average Kenyan’s understanding of mental health. We spoke to members of the general population: men and women, between 20-40 years of age, based in Nairobi, Mombasa and across the Rift Valley, both higher and lower SECs (BC1C2). In order to gather a more comprehensive picture of what was going on in Kenya, we carried out in depth interviews with a range of mental health experts: from radio journalists, to senators, suicidologists to mental health practitioners, as well as recovered mental health patients.

Understanding the stigma around mental health and getting people to open up

We conducted a qualitative general population survey through our online community, providing respondents with a safe and anonymous space in which to explore this sensitive topic. We spoke to more than 80 people either during one-on-ones or in mini groups (3-4 people max). Mini groups were first used to gather general perceptions about mental health; groups were separated by gender, with exception of some deliberate mixed gender groups to allow respondents to exchange and reflect around their mental health experiences. Online research was supplemented by face to face in depth interviews.

We also spoke to people who had recovered from mental health illnesses or had lived an experience with a close family member/friend. For these stories, we used one on ones (face to face or online) to allow them to share their stories privately and in confidence.

To complement the voice of the average Kenyan, we also reached out to numerous stakeholders invested in mental health in Kenya, from policy advisors and politicians, to numerous NGOs or non-profits on the ground. These experts provided us with their knowledge and insight into the mental health landscape in Kenya. In all, 15 stakeholders in Kenya were interviewed. Unanimously, these experts all said the same thing- that there was an urgent need for more research.

Strongly believing that film naturally complements a research report, we produced a short film to accompany the report. This film reflects the title of the report, ‘Why Don’t We Talk About This?’ and illustrates the barriers around mental health and the stigma often faced by those suffering from mental health illness in Kenya. It’s a visual depiction of the current state of mental health in the country.

Whilst our research results are currently qualitative, we are hoping to quantify the hypotheses in 2020 and would value any funding contributions to do so.

Who can benefit from this?

This piece of research provides a robust qualitative baseline that can be used to inform any future research (qualitative and quantitative). This research clearly lays out the population’s thoughts on mental health – a comprehensive ‘U&A’ around the subject. Added to this, our experts have validated and corroborated that the insights uncovered are a true reflection of the current mental health landscape in Kenya.

As far as we know, this is one of the most comprehensive pieces of research that has been undertaken around mental health in Kenya. It’s the first step in a very important journey: that of breaking the silence around mental health in Kenya in order to end the stigma. The research has also recently been used for NGO funding requests.

Help us tell Jackline’s story

In the course of this research we came across many inspiring and tragic mental health stories. One that deeply affected us is that of the death of Jackline Chepngeno, the 14 year old Bomet schoolgirl who tragically took her own life after alleged period shaming by her teacher. Jackline’s story moved us so much, we decided to make a documentary. It’s our first documentary and a huge passion project. We need help to finish it.

If you can spare a little this Christmas, please make a donation on our crowdfunding page. Please help us finish this story!


About the Authors: 

Paul Drawbridge, Amélie Truffert and Rhonda Nicholl – Be Forward