Article by Letoo James
On 1st June 2019, Kenya declared the state of her mental health a national disaster. Using the Madaraka Day platform, President Kenyatta singled out depression as the most common mental disorder devastating young people’s lives. He then directed employers and schools at all levels to urgently devote time and resources in monitoring and improving mental wellbeing. Less than a year later Covid 19 pandemic hit big and brought the world to its knees. Mental health problems were experienced as parallel pandemic of magnitude proportions never seen in human history.
In urging schools to do more in responding to students’ psychosocial needs, the President was up to date with empirical evidence on effective strategies curbing mental health disorders. This is because programs that promote good mental health, prevention and early intervention have better outcomes. In fact, studies show that the greatest wellbeing outcomes are realized when these programs target children and adolescents.
Since 2003, Education Policy changes (Free primary education, 100% transition rate to High Schools and Public University at every county) sharply increased the number of children, adolescent and young adults attending schools. Kenya has a very youthful population. 2019 census shows that children 0-14 years were about 19 Million while adolescents 10-19 years were close to 12 Million. The two groups constitute 39% and 24.5% of the entire population respectively. These cohorts mostly attend primary and secondary schools.
Majority of Primary and secondary schools have some form of guidance and counselling services accessible to learners at various degrees of quality and intensity. Private institutions have superior psychosocial services comparative to their public counterparts. Colleges and Universities are mandated by law to provide professional counselling services to their students. Commission of University Education (CHE), a corporate body established by an act of parliament, ensures compliance by all Universities. Through these measures, schools as institutions are therefore the biggest providers of mental health services by serving more than 60% of Kenya’s population.
Schools (baby class – Universities) are and can play a significant role in safeguarding youth’s mental wellness. Since school occupies the most time of a young person’s life, it can also be said that teachers, peers, and mental health professionals in schools spent the most time with them. These significant figures around the life of a child are also among the first to notice when their mental health is not well. Investment in mentorship, training and funding of schools, teachers, peers, school counsellors and psychologists will increase the effectiveness of the country’s current imperfect mental health strategy.
Schools offer Kenya the greatest hope for positive mental health outcome for her children, adolescents and young adults through promotion, prevention and early intervention programs. Any smart policy, strategy, or program targeting children mental health must have schools, teachers, peers as central players or environment and not just clinics and hospitals or doctors, psychologists or counsellors. After all the Kenya Mental Health Policy 2015-2030 expects the role of improving the Nations wellbeing to all.