The Mind’s Miracle Key: Dr. Frank Njenga’s Story of the Mental Health Crisis in Africa
When we sit down to take in and view the world with all the problems that plague society today, we often wonder where we can start to help solve it. Of course, each person’s view of their “world” could be taken in several contexts. It could mean something as large as your entire country or even something as small as your own town. Regardless of your point of view, you cannot help but feel a strong calling to find that one “cure all” solution to a better way of life for your world and the people living in it.
One man in Kenya is working hard to create a better way of life for his patients and hopes his work will carry on for the entire African region.
On January 31, 2012, CNN conducted an interview with Dr. Frank Njenga, a leading psychiatrist in Kenya. He has been a practicing psychiatrist in the region for over three decades. He is also the President of the African Association of Psychiatrists.
Dr. Njenga’s calling to this field originated from his reading of “Wretched of the Wicked”, a work written by Frantz Fanon who was also a psychiatrist. Dr Fanon’s work focused on the psychological effects of society during and after living in a colonized society. The work inspired Dr. Njenga to enter into a profession that specializes in addressing mental health issues, and so he studied psychology at a medical school in Kenya. Upon graduation, he continued his studies in Maudsley Hospital in the United Kingdom.
However, rather than build a career in the UK, he decided to move back to Kenya in hopes his skills would provide the help his country needed.
Reports from the United Nations and non-governmental organizations indicate that an estimated population of 3 million people in Kenya are afflicted with mental disabilities. Most of these individuals are poor, making the search for affordable healthcare a major challenge. Furthermore, the current ratio is only one psychiatrist that is available to care for every half a million people.
Unfortunately, the problem of addressing mental health is not solely limited to Kenya. It also seems to affect the rest of the African continent. In fact, some area are even worse off than Kenya according to Dr. Njenga:
“There are countries in Africa where there is no single psychiatrist to five-six million people.”
Dr. Njenga has indicated two major sources to be the cause of this problem. He believes part of it is the lack of attention given by the government to create proper facilities to care for these patients. The other and perhaps more underlying issue is the general stigma associated by society towards those who suffer from mental disabilities.
In a video interview with CNN, Dr. Njenga associates this stigma with ignorance: ”….when you have no information, when you are ignorant, then you assign schizophrenia, you assign depression, you assign any behavior you cannot understand to possession by witchcraft or some other demons…”
Upon Dr. Njenga’s return to Kenya, he became determined to provide proper healthcare the population while combating the stigmas associated with mental conditions. He organized a television show called, “Frankly Speaking,” in which he interviewed patients who suffered from schizophrenia and drug abuse. These topics are labeled as “taboos” of African society by its residents so they are largely kept out of the public eye. He also became chairman of an insurance company that provides affordable healthcare in the Kenya region.
Perhaps his proudest achievement was providing affordable top-quality healthcare by building a private in-patient psychiatric hospital, becoming the first one of its kind in Kenya. Dr. Njenga has felt this hospital along with his other works has helped curb the stigma associated with mental disabilities by providing a real forum for the people of his country to seek real help and hope.
Dr. Njenga’s work may be a little unfamiliar to us in terms of what this means to us. We may have heard about stories of people who are not able to get good health care for their mental disabilities, but not quite on the scale as that of Kenya. It’s also hard to imagine that such a stigma about this problem might be such an issue here. We may look at this story and feel compassion for the people who suffer in Kenya, but we may not see the same dilemmas affecting our country. So why does this matter to us so much?
It matters because regardless of location, this is a problem that can happen anywhere. Even with the high quality facilities we have in this country, not everyone who needs help gets the help they need. In fact, Dr. Njenga had mentioned in his interview that people with mental illness can have a rather negative impact on the economy because it limits their ability to produce work. The same can certainly be said here. If you suffer from a mental disability, what you will do if you need to focus on performing sensitive surgery, repairing electronic equipment, or even transporting goods? If it’s a condition that’s serious and not properly treated, it can make life so much more difficult especially when the easiest task becomes difficult to perform.
Now, let’s put economics aside for the moment and think about what’s more important about what’s happening in Kenya. Think real hard about what the people there and the people in the United States have in common.
I’ve said this word multiple times in my last paragraph, so if you haven’t guessed by now, let me spell it out…..both societies have people living in them!
Every society deserves a real chance for real happiness and no matter where that society is located we need to know what’s going on and what we can do to help. We are dealing with stories about people who are not able to speak coherently, who cannot control their emotional outbursts, who cannot even feed themselves because their minds cannot send stable signals to their limps. We may not suffer from such ailments ourselves, but imagine for a moment what it be like if we did?
I have an uncle in Italy who once worked as a dentist for over a year until he suffered an attack. He was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in his early 30's. He never suffered another attack. However, he and his immediate family spent a great deal of time trying to find a cure rather than seeking help on how to continue living the life he wanted without letting MS affect it. In the end, the condition was never properly treated. He not only quit his practice, but he also spends his days in a wheelchair in his mother's apartment and is barely able to speak or hear. He's now 64.
Could you imagine what it be like to live a life where it was virtually impossible to do anything on your own without specialized help? If that is the kind of life you would not want for yourself, would you be okay with the idea that someone else has to live like that?
Certainly Dr. Njenga did not think such a life for anyone was fair. He had the opportunity to stay in the UK if he wished and perhaps live a more stable and financially rewarding life. He could have started a high end medical career in a more stable country, but that’s not where he set his sights. He was determined to learn the best tools he could from wherever he could in order to help the people he loved in the country he calls his real home. While he may not be able to rid someone of their mental ailment, he has enough knowledge and passion in his field to provide a real chance for people to live a life of happiness and normalcy.
We may not be professionals in the field ourselves, but there are means to find the support the people of Kenya need to live a life of normalcy. I would encourage you to visit the charity site listed here, which provides a huge network of support to families and individuals in Kenya who suffer from mental health issues:
In addition, I would also strongly suggest that you take the time and think very hard about what these people go through and what it means to lose even the basic functions of living a normal life.
Maybe you don’t have that miracle injection to help someone regain their speech, but your support of their treatment will give them all the reason they need to sing and cheer again.