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Police officer, medic highlight gaps in mental health support while working in Kenya

When was the last time you genuinely checked on your friends in the police and the medical fields?

Ant-riot police and members of the public at a street in Kisii town

It’s easy to imagine that health workers are just okay due to the assumption that they know better about mental health than other professions. But that couldn’t be further from the truth, at least going by the statistics.

In the last two years alone, the country lost seven doctors to suicide, according to the Kenya Medical Practitioners, Pharmacists, and Dentists Union (KMPDU).

Similar to health workers, the police are exposed to trauma in their line of work, which can harm their well-being.

Recently, a police officer in Kericho County shot his girlfriend before turning the gun on himself—such cases have become common and it’s worrying.

Lucy, (not her real name) tells us that frequent transfers, poor pay and harsh working conditions are some of the challenges you'd have to deal with as a police officer.

It’s even harder because you are supposed to remain tough despite what you are going through.

“A while back, I was transferred from Mount Kenya to the Lake region. The same year, my son was diagnosed with a congenital disease and my world fell apart. Here I was in a new place, depressed and with new colleagues who couldn’t understand the pain I was going through. Everyone thought I was just a proud and antisocial person. Colleagues sidelined me and made my life a living hell,” she narrates.

Lucy adds: “People grieve but in my line of work, no one understands what grieving is all about. Sadly, my son passed on and I sank into depression and I had to deal with it by myself until I healed.”

Lucy says things could be much better if the police got better salaries and a conducive working environment. She notes that sometimes they are forced to make hard decisions, choosing between their own safety and serving mwananchi.

At times, they want to serve but do not have bus fare and the police vehicles are unavailable. In such circumstances, they are forced to “borrow” transport money from mwananchi.

“Police are humans and we face a lot of challenges. I cannot exhaust them. Imagine seeing your friend die while on a mission and you still have to suppress your emotions. Sometimes we are in dangerous places, dealing with dangerous criminals, but the law forbids us from using a rifle,” Lucy tells this writer.

Wanjiku Muturi, a clinical officer and content creator, points out that the nature of the medical work exposes them to stress on a daily basis.

“When you lose a patient, it’s quite hard for your mental health. You tend to lose a part of yourself every time you lose a patient. Our crazy working shifts detach us from our social life and it becomes hard to even keep your family life together.

"Maybe there is this patient I had connected with on a good level and was hoping they are getting better but I lose them. When I go home, my partner might not understand that I am grieving someone I don’t even know,” says Ms Wanjiku.

She explains that health workers tend to be overworked and understaffed yet still expected to deliver exemplary services.

Delayed promotions, late salaries, and poor remuneration in the medical field do not make things any better.

The consultation fees for mental health in Kenya range between Sh3,000 to Sh5,000, which is far from what most medical workers can afford.

She adds that: “As health workers, there’s no program for us to get mental health support. Some of us cannot afford mental health treatment. You’ll find that our NHIF cover doesn’t cover mental health treatment, so you have to pay from your pocket. I think if we had enough qualified mental health physicians who are accessible and affordable, things could be better.”

As things stand, the situation demands that we act by looking out for each other from time to time. We cannot just assume that our loved ones are okay because they are all smiles. If we are keen and genuinely concerned about our loved ones, we can tell when they start drifting and seek intervention earliest possible.

To further understand the weight of the situation, we engaged Martha, a clinical psychologist and Co-founder of Mindful Kenya.

Martha emphasises the importance of having a supportive circle of friends and family since the police and health workers’ nature of work can lead to burnout and even suicide.

The psychologist explains: “Healthcare workers are considered life savers, which is their core principle; this leaves them suffering in silence for fear of stigma. Mental health illness is not well understood, yet strongly stigmatized in our community. The workload and personal challenges back at home may cause mental health problems for healthcare workers, including suicide.

“The police also experience compassion fatigue, secondary trauma [trauma as you listen to someone’s traumatic experience while in the line of duty], and vicarious trauma [repeatedly being exposed to someone’s trauma] as they get the statements from clients. They are exposed to traumatizing situations such as floods, bombed areas, and famine that leave them affected and needing psychological attention.

"The police, by nature of their training, are required to have high resilience to survive the good and bad times with minimal distress. The risk factors above affect this resilience, given the difficulties surrounding someone,” Martha tells us.

To further support the police and health workers, Martha encourages friends and family to watch out for symptoms such as fatigue, cynicism, poor concentration, low productivity, and irritability among their family and friends.

Her company, Mindful Kenya, also allows family and friends to nominate a loved one who needs intervention by simply dialing *702*30# and following the prompts.

Their suicide team then reaches out to the nominee digitally, assesses them, and refers them to the appropriate professionals. This takes the burden of seeking mental health support away from the patient while allowing one to support their loved ones anonymously.

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