Time to focus on Men’s mental health

By Seliphar Machoni

Mental health has not solely been a concern in Kenya but  in the world, especially among the youth. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), one in every eight people, or 970 million people, were living with a mental disorder as of 2019, with anxiety and depressive disorders being the most common.

In 2020, the number of people living with anxiety and depressive disorders rose significantly because of the COVID-19 pandemic, which came with its challenges, as stated by WHO.

A Kenya National Bureau of Statistics (KNBS) report released in November last year showed that more Kenyan men than women have mental disorders.

The report combined figures on the status of women and men in Kenya into 12 thematic areas, including health, with specific figures related to chronic illnesses and mental health disorders included in the Kenya Household and Health Expenditure and Utilisation Survey (KHHEUS), 2018.

According to the “Women and Men in Kenya, Facts and Figures, 2022” report, which listed 14 chronic health conditions, 43.1 percent of women suffered from mental disorders, compared to 56.9 percent of men. The age groups with the highest number of cases of mental disorders were 15–19 years (12.9 percent); 20–24 years (9.7 percent); 25–29 years (9.5 percent); and 30-34 years (8.6 percent).

In this article, I will be focusing on the state of mental health among men in Kenya. I will highlight what men have gone through regarding mental health, casting a spotlight on a youth in Kakamega County who battled with mental illness and disorders to the extent of trying to take his life.

The male gender is always forgotten when it comes to mental health matters. What is life like for a man undergoing mental illness? What does he do when he feels like he can’t take it anymore? Who does he open up to and become vulnerable to in a world where a man is “supposed” to feel pain—physical or mental?

Men find it hard to open up, even when on the edge of death. Mental disorders and illnesses like depression, stress, anxiety, and even loneliness are the biggest issues eating up the male gender. According to research by the WHO in 2019, men more than women suffer more from mental health problems. They fear crying out their problems and issues to the public, believing in the norm that “men tears are not to be seen in public,” hence, dying inside. Many end up using alcohol, abusing drugs, or even committing suicide to solve their mental health issues.

Festus Mulindi, a third-year IT student at Sigalagala National Polytechnic, attempted to take his life after battling with depression for over five months. He made this decision after struggling with campus life and the negligence of his parents.

Joining campus life was not smooth for Mulindi, as he was supposed to hustle for his tuition fees and upkeep. Once his parents ensured he had joined campus successfully, they stopped catering to his upkeep and school fees with the excuse of taking care of his siblings.

Luckily for him, he got a part-time job as a cashier in a supermarket located in Kakamega town. Mulindi was forced to balance lectures and work, which he managed for two and a half years.

“I worked at the supermarket for two and a half years, and everything was going on smoothly as I was able to pay my tuition fees with the help of HELB and cater for my basic needs. I continued with this routine of work and learn until when it reached a time when the management of the supermarket was changed, the supermarket was now owned by someone else, and the new owner came with his changes, which affected most of the workers including me.This happened when I was in third year, second semester. I remember that day I prepared for work as usual, as I  used to work from 3pm until midnight. On my arrival at the supermarket, I was asked to meet the supermarket manager in his office. I went straight to the manager’s office because, in my mind, I could not figure out the issue. I entered the manager’s office only to be given a letter that indicated that my  services are no longer needed at the supermarket and another envelope that contained my salary for that month. The new owner had already replaced me with someone else.” Mulindi narrated

Mulindi’s body went numb for a minute; he couldn’t move and he just stared at the manager without uttering a word. He saw the world crumble in front of him. He tried to speak, but no word came out of his mouth. He tried to beg, to no avail. He slowly took the letter and the envelope from the table, and with teary eyes, he walked out of the office. On his way back to his house, he was full of thoughts about how he would pay his tuition fee; although HELB was paying part of it, it was not enough for a full semester. He thought of how he would get his basic needs and pay rent for his bedsitter. However, he consoled himself with that hoping to get another job and the slang saying, “mwanaume ni kupambana,”.

“I looked for a new job to no avail until I started using my  savings. But as I was using my savings, I asked myself what I would use when they get finished. Every day, I was full of thoughts about the next step and the road my life was taking. I exhausted my savings, and I had nothing left. I started borrowing from friends, promising to pay it back. It was not something to be proud of and I never liked it, but I had no other options.” Mulindi narrated

In three months, Mulindi had accumulated a huge amount of debt. He owed his friends, his shopkeeper, Mama Mboga, his boda boda rider, his landlord, and the school administration kept sending him emails, reminding him to pay his tuition fees or risk not sitting for the end-of-semester exams.

He decided to talk to his parents to convince them to pay for the tuition fees. He explained to his parents his current situation.

“After explaining to my parents about my situation, they took no action. I am the firstborn, and I have other siblings—three sisters and a brother back home who were at school. My father, after listening to my story, advised me to look for another job. I explained to him how getting another job was hard. My father told me that I try my best to get another job as  paying my tuition fee and my siblings  fees was not easy, especially in the current economy. I felt heartbroken,” Mulindi narrated.

Mulindi explained that it reached a point where he was nicknamed “Jamaa wa madeni” by some of his friends. To them, they said it as a joke, but to him, it was painful that he could not take it.

“I decided to distance myself from people, and I rarely attended my lectures. I had tried everything and reached a point of giving up on everything. I spent most of the time in my house. I stopped attending lectures because missing my exams broke my heart and made me give up. I was ashamed even to visit my friends because, when they saw me, they knew that I was there to borrow money or food. That was so shameful to me as a man. My landlord knocked on my door every day, reminding me of my two weeks’ notice. I could not even tell anyone about my situation because once a man opens up about his problems, he is seen as a coward and no one takes him seriously. We die with our problems. I sometimes survived by drinking water, but my health was deteriorating daily because I was seriously depressed and stressed. But it reached a point where I said to myself, “Enough is enough; I had to end everything because I was going insane.” Mulindi said

The same day he made the decision to end his life, his friend Njenga was on his way to his house to check on him because he had  noticed Mulindi’s absentia during the exam period and had wondered where Mulindi was.

On reaching the house, Njenga didn’t bother to knock since he was used to getting in without knocking.

“Immediately after opening the door, what I saw made me remain rooted at the door. I could not believe what was happening. I couldn’t stand to see my friend commit suicide right before my eyes; I had to act first to save his life before he went as far as committing suicide by drinking the contents of the bottle that he was holding, ready to empty it in his mouth. I kicked the bottle, and the contents inside spilled on the floor.” Njenga said

It took time for Njenga and Mulind’s landlord to cool Mulindi down. Njenga took Mulindi to the campus counseling officer. He was afraid Mulindi could harm himself again.  At the campus counseling office, Mulindi opened up and poured his heart out to the counseling officer.

Mulindi’s situation was so bad that the counseling officer requested that he start counseling sessions and therapy immediately for the sake of his mental health and sanity. He stayed at Njenga’s house as he attended his therapy and counseling sessions.

As he was undergoing therapy and counseling, the institute offered him a job and a scholarship to complete his studies. His parents apologized for ignoring him all along.

The situation made Mulindi start a movement on campus with the help of the counseling officer, and Njenga. This movement provides a space for the male gender to speak up about their problems to end mental illness and disorders among men. The movement provides a platform for the male gender- not only in that institute- but throughout Kakamega County to openly speak up about their mental health struggles.

There are men out here— our brothers, friends, fathers, and uncles—who need a shoulder to cry on; they need to be listened to without judgment. As we cry for the increasing deaths among the youth and  old men in Kenya, let’s keep in mind that mental illness, depression, stress and anxiety have become the serial killer of most of the young and old men. More than 60% of Kenyan men suffer from mental health problems, leading to depression, but it goes unnoticed, resulting in suicidal cases. Men are more likely to die by suicide compared to women. Men’s mental health matters.

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