‘There is no health without mental health’- Dr. Brock Chisholm, 1st Director-General, World Health Organization
Without mental health there can be no true physical health, this ideology as fronted by Dr. Brock Chisholm set the stage for the world to place mental health issues at the core of all spheres of health; including policy, interventions and high-level discussions.
Health as defined by World Health Organization (WHO) is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity. This then implies that mental health is beyond the absence of mental disorders or disabilities. There are many factors that determine the state of one’s mental health including; social, economic, psychological, and biological factors within one’s environment. Additionally, mental illnesses and challenges can be triggered or exacerbated by life-threatening occurrences and disasters, including health epidemics and pandemics like the current novel Corona virus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Pandemic.
Studies have shown the connection between mental illness and other health conditions and this demands the appreciation of both, given that mental disorders increase the risk for both communicable and non-communicable diseases; and the vice versa is true, that communicable and non-communicable diseases increase the risk of mental disorder.
Rightly so, the COVID-19 pandemic currently affecting countries around the globe is generating high levels of stress among populations globally. It is therefore critical to make deliberate efforts and actions in addressing mental health challenges posed by the pandemic to populations and individuals especially healthcare providers and caregivers.
As part of response and support strategies for countries in the face of COVID-19 pandemic, the WHO on 12 March 2020 published the ‘Mental Health and Psycho-social Considerations During COVID-19 Outbreak’ to act as guidelines on mental health for the psychological well-being of everyone during the outbreak. The guidelines discourage attaching labels to people with the disease; as this is most likely to create stigma. Precisely the reason why WHO is discouraging the use of terms such as “COVID-19 cases/families”, “victims” or the “diseased” to refer to people with the disease; but rather recommends use of “people who have COVID-19”, “people who are being treated for COVID-19”, “and people who are recovering from COVID-19”. This also explain the name of the disease ‘COVID-19’ and not ‘China Virus’ or ’Wuhan Virus’ so that the disease is not attached to any ethnicity or nationality.
Other measures recommended by WHO is to limit watching, reading or listening to news bound to cause anxiety or distress. People are being encouraged to seek information mainly for purposes of preparation on how to protect self and loved ones. This is in cognizant of the hunger and the desire the population has to know more about the disease mostly when the first case is reported in a given country. This puts people at risk of stress and panic. Wrong information as seen on social media platforms is fueling stress and panic and should be avoided like the pandemic itself, for the sake of our mental health.
The stress and panic were witnessed here in Kenya when the first case was announced and people proceeded to supermarkets to buy household goods in bulk, others started sending false information on social media. All these reactions being evidence that despite knowing the presence of the disease in other countries we were not prepared mentally to have the disease in our country.
As more cases continue to be recorded in the country, it is of supreme importance to follow the advice being fronted by the Ministry of Health on how to stay safe; for instance washing hands with soap and water or use of sanitizers which meet the standard (have more that 60% alcohol content), keeping hands away from the eyes, nose and mouth, covering cough and sneeze under a bent elbow and maintaining social distancing among others.
Kenyans should also adhere to the partial lock down measures that have already been ordered. Though the country remains hopeful that less cases will be announced, following the trends in other countries, it is only right to prepare for what may be ahead of us as a nation. Should more cases be recorded in the days to come, the country may go into full lock down as is the case in other countries and these are the times we need to be mindful of our mental health. These are the times the government need to step in to ensure that Kenyans still enjoy highest possible quality of life in the face of possible lock down as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
The government needs to ensure that people who are not able to fend for themselves without going to work every day are comfortable while self-isolating. Our government should learn from the trade ministry in Rwanda which fixed prices for 17 food items including rice, sugar and cooking oil and do the same and maybe better so as to avoid hiking of food prices. The Ministry of Health should also seek to protect the mental health of all Kenyans including the healthcare workers by publishing local mental health guidelines and establishing hotlines through which mental health specialists will be available for counselling during this COVID-19 outbreak.
Just like the rest of the world, Kenyans are anxious about the future occurrences around COVID-19, we do not know what will happen but in the midst of all these we should protect our health and support each other as much as possible at all levels to ensure that we come out of it healthy in all aspects including mentally.
By Celine Awuor and Elizabeth Mbugua
International Institute for Legislative Affairs