Kenya's Journey: Tracing the Evolution of Mental Health Practices


By Modupe Adeniyi. Freelance Health Reporter.


An African woman receives comforting support from a caregiver

An African Woman receives comforting support from a caregiver as she holds her head in her hands


Wednesday, MAY 29, 2024. For centuries, mental health issues in Kenya were deeply rooted in tradition. Herbalists, medicine men and diviners sought spiritual explanations for misfortunes including mental illnesses. There was no clear distinction between mental and physical illnesses as people were viewed as whole individuals and not as a composite of different components.


"We also had witch doctors, who though viewed with apprehension, were sometimes consulted to reverse curses believed to be affecting a person's mental state," shared Prof. Lukoye Atwoli, a professor in Psychiatry, during the 'Nation's' second edition of Mental Wellness and Counselling Conference last year.


"Even though a person was seen as a whole individual, not as a composite of mental, physical and other components, some treatments were specific for what we would consider mental illnesses. Those conditions were often caused due to supernatural forces. You know either our ancestors, the gods or some other spirits which were punishing this individual for something they did or something someone in their lineage did," Prof. Lukoye explained.


The arrival of the British in the late 19th century brought a marked shift. Western medicine was introduced and the Nairobi Lunatic Asylum, converted from a former smallpox isolation centre, became the first dedicated mental health facility in 1910. While serving European settlers with mental health needs, it also became a place to confine Africans deemed mentally ill or expressing dissent against colonial rule.


"It sounds funny today, but people who were mentally ill in 1910 were called lunatics. Over time, the colonial government started using this facility as a prison and ”mental health” as something that would punish people who said things with disagreement," he said.


In the following years, the British government applied various mental health acts from India and the UK to Kenya, leading to the enactment of the Mental Health Act by the Kenyan parliament in 1989.


"And all this time, we didn't have a policy in mental health covering this," Prof. Lukoye explained.


The 2010 Constitution included the right to the highest attainable standard of mental health for Kenyans. In 2015, the Mental Health Policy of 2015-2030 was launched, providing a framework for strengthening mental health services and addressing stigma, marking a progressive step in Kenya's journey towards comprehensive mental health care.


Source: Nation Media Group. 




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Published: May 29, 2024

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