Michael Njenga, 33, is a mental illness advocate whose work unravels the stigma, misconception and ignorance society wrongly advances to reject the mentally ill. From his office at Kangemi PCEA Church, Michael says mental illness is an illness like any other and patients need understanding, love and care not labels such as ‘crazy’ or ‘mad…
Kangemi PCEA Church houses Users and Survivors of Psychiatry in Kenya (USP), a movement for persons with mental illnesses, and where Michael Njenga is a member and the administrator. The voluntary organisation brings together people recovering from different forms of mental disorders. It creates awareness about mental health in Kenya and acts as a platform for advocating the rights of persons with mental illness. Through USP, Michael initiated a support group in 2001.
The group consists of about 25 young people majority of who were brilliant high school and university students, but discontinued their studies due to mental illness. While trying to put their lives back on track, these young people have accepted a few things – life may never be the same again; they may never regain their former lives in full; some of the conditions they suffer from are chronic and it is not a question of recovery but managing the condition and living productively within the society.
Michael has created a family within the support group that accepts each member the way they are. It is a family that does not judge one of it’s own and that understands each member’s struggles and challenges. This makes members feel at home and helps them open up and discuss their feelings. This is the first step to recovery. They talk about societal stigmatization and rejection of people with mental disorders and encourage each other. There is, for example, a misconception that mentally ill people are violent and dangerous. This of course is not the case as most mentally sick people are not violent unless they suffer from a severe condition, where loss of reality and violence are a symptom.
Michael the living inspiration…
Standing tall and speaking confidently, Michael’s encouraging words to the support group when he invited me to join them were touching. It was unbelievable that this eloquent young man ever went through a challenge in his life. But he is a living example that with support, care, love and understanding from family in particular, and society in general, a person with mental illness can regain a big percentage of his life.
Michael talks about his experience as a mental illness patient and the challenges he faced as a way of encouraging members of the support group. He was diagnosed with a mental illness and put under psychiatric care and given medication. His condition improved but he drifted to taking alcohol alongside the medication, thereby reducing the drug’s efficacy. He then abruptly stopped taking the drugs and subsequently relapsed to a worse state than before. Luckily, his mother, Tabitha Njenga, took him back to hospital where he was instructed to consistently take medication and never stop without doctor’s instructions.
When he followed instructions to the letter over a period of seven years, he resumed a big percentage of his normal life. Though still recovering, Michael is a living example that one can recover enough to engage in gainful work. He inspires the young people in his group. A certified public accountant, he has worked as a lecturer, college assistant administrator, car hire firm administrator, and is currently doing project management at USP, in addition to being a full-time mental health advocate. He is frequently on TV, radio and the print media talking about his work and mental illness in general.
Michael says that while taking medication is very important, a patient needs to address issues in their lives that triggered the illness in the first place. If those triggers are not addressed, medication alone may not bring complete recovery.
“For instance, my problem was triggered by the death of my father. I lived in denial and the simmering pain inside developed into mental illness over time. It wasn’t until I consulted a psychologist, who took me through the process of acceptance and mourning, that I let go off my past. I had a lot of negative thoughts and my therapist helped me change my thinking pattern to replace negative thoughts with positive affirmations. That is called, psychotherapy. Equally important is psycho-education, which means teaching yourself about your condition in order to develop coping mechanisms and ways of managing it. I learnt this after a lot of struggle with clinical depression,” he explains.
Michael was involved in an investigation on the nature of mental illness in Kenya, which was commissioned by the Human Rights Watchdog. The findings were startling. “There is family and society abuse of people with mental illness. Many mentally challenged people are abandoned by their families in psychiatric hospitals and institutions. Such relatives cut all contacts with the patient. Some recover and remain in hospital because they have nowhere to go. And because recovering patients are secluded after discharge from an institution like Mathari Mental Hospital, integration back into the society becomes very difficult. Society needs to understand mental illness and endeavor to help those who are sick and not isolate them,” says Michael, while talking about the research findings.
How USP helps…
Founded in 2007 by five people with different mental conditions, USP, a voluntary organisation, has engaged in numerous mental health initiatives in Kenya. The latest project – Empower – has been working with a group of researchers to develop a communication strategy to give a face to mental illness. This involves interviewing people with mental illness to get their experiences firsthand and use this information for communication purposes. This will not only demystify the disease, but also give it a face and help Kenyans empathise with those affected. Another project involving teaching people with mental illness their rights so they can become their own advocates, was recently executed in Kiambu West, Nyeri, Laikipia and Kibera.
USP has about 100 individual members and 20 groups, mainly community development programmes in rural areas. Annual membership fee is Ksh500. The organisation works closely with families of people with mental illness because they carry the burden of caring for their sick and need to understand the condition and how to make life easy for those under their care. USP is a member of the Pan African Network of Persons with Psychosocial Disabilities.
Mental health care funding, currently at less that one percent of Kenya’s health budget, is a major challenge as the disease is rampant, affecting about 20 per cent of the population. There is also scarcity of mental health doctors, with only about 77 psychiatrists in the country. Because of lack of proper health care, mental patients benefit greatly from support groups such as the one Michael has created.
Support groups create a forum where people can share experiences and challenges, and at the same time learn from the success of others. Members learn about human rights, stress management mechanisms, coping skills as well as education about different mental conditions. This is a strong way of building their capacities to manage their conditions better. However, a support group can only complement rather than substitute the role of mental health doctor and it is, therefore, important for the government to address the issue of shortage of doctors and access of health care for the mentally sick.
Michael’s story of hope…
“My illness started when my father died in a horrific road accident in March 1991, when I was in standard eight. He dotted on me as his only son and the first born of his two children. I still recall the many entertaining spots we frequented, and he even taught me to drive at a very early age. Naturally, his death was devastating psychologically and in many other ways. For instance, he was the family breadwinner, and I felt my assurance of an education diminish with his death.
There was a lot of uncertainty in my life that degenerated into severe psychological problems. I passed my in the Kenya Certificate of Primary Education (KCPE) and was enrolled at Njiri’s High School in Murang’a in 1992. I was one of the top five performers in the country. I soon developed severe physical and behavioural problems. In spite of being bright I struggled a lot academically and did not grasp what was taught in class. Secondly, I lost my self-esteem and kept to myself. I just managed to scrape through form one before the problem became full-blown. One morning, I just snapped and tore the examination paper the teacher had placed on my desk and walked out of the examination room.
My teachers realised I was undergoing a psychological problem and sent me home to seek counseling. My mother and my only sibling, Irene Njenga, were shocked and embarrassed at my bad behaviour. They, like many others including my teachers, couldn’t understand why a bright student in one of the best schools was misbehaving, disrespectful, lazy and irresponsible. Many times I heard different people ask why I didn’t understand that my mother was a single parent struggling to educate me. It is as if I behaved that way out of choice. I wish they understood mental illness was stalking me and what I needed was treatment, love, care and understanding.
I resumed school after a few weeks at home and without a diagnosis. I felt so hopeless and misunderstood by everyone and just wanted to die. One day I sneaked out to Thika town, bought petrol worth Ksh100 in a jerry can and drank it right at the petrol station. I immediately collapsed and the petrol attendant, along with a crowd that formed around, forced milk into my stomach to dilute the poison. When I regained consciousness, I found policemen had been called and instead of taking me to hospital, they locked me up in the police cells to face a charge of attempted suicide. My mother secured my release without charges being preferred against me and sought medical help. After a few counseling sessions I went back to school. I still struggled with behaviour and learning problems.
Surprisingly I passed well enough in the forth form examination in 1995 to be admitted for a certified public accountant (CPA) course. In the second year of my accounting studies the disease took a firm control of me. I was unaware that I was suffering from clinical depression because no diagnosis had been made up to this point. Besides behavioral problems, I suffered physical problems such as persistent chest pains and tightness, severe joint aches, headaches and lack of sleep (insomnia). I woke up tired each morning and lacked concentration in class. I was branded a talented young man wasting his life away. This pressure drove me further into depression. I was not on medication and went into ‘self-medication’ with anything alcoholic – busaa, chang’aa or kanga’ri. In deed, I’m alive today through the grace of God.
My mother sought medical attention for me at the Kiambu District Hospital and other private clinics. Unfortunately all I was prescribed with were sleeping pills and multivitamins that only provided temporary relief before a relapse. For the next three years I was in and out of hospitals being treated for physical symptoms I presented without a proper diagnosis being made. Out of frustration, I indulged even more in alcohol. Family members and other people ignorantly asked me why I was not ambitious yet I was very bright. How could I tell them that I yearned to study but my life was so complex. I was suffering from severe depression, was feeling hopeless and the only thing that resonated in my mind as a way out of it was suicide.
And finally I lost it…
Excessive alcohol triggered what is called psychotic symptoms in mental illness. I started hallucinating. I saw faces of people suspended in the air, sometimes laughing at me or crying and empathising with my situation. Often I heard voices telling me that I was useless and hopeless. I got very scared and dared not get out of the house convinced that someone had cast a spell on me.
My mother sought further medical attention for me even though she was struggling to raise the money. I was predominantly complaining of chest problems and this prompted her to consult a chest specialist in 1999. After careful examination, the physician said I was suffering a psychological problem that manifested in physical symptoms such as chest pain. For the first time I was given a clinical depression diagnosis.
The doctor put me on anti-depressant drugs that had positive effect almost immediately. The physical symptoms of chest pain and tightness, as well as insomnia started going away. But when I thought I was getting better, I went back to drinking and missing out on drugs. I went into a relapse and this time round was admitted in a psychiatric hospital, as my condition was very bad. I resumed medication and followed doctor’s instructions religiously from 2000, and also stopped drinking. By 2007 I was functioning better and had my life almost back. I am still on the recovery journey and I thank God I have regained a good percentage of my normal life and I am able to help others.”
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Published in February 2012