Are We Sanitizing Mental Health?
If you take care of your mind, you take care of the world.- Ariana Huffington
As we conclude mental health awareness month, I thought it would be crucial to discuss a few topics around this area that are often overlooked. I was privileged to meet Dr. Oscar Githua during a public participation hearing of the Mental Health Bill in Parliament a few months ago. He is Kenya’s first Forensic Psychologist and an Assistant Professor of Psychology at USIU-Africa. He is the current Chairperson of the Kenya Psychological Association and a member of the National Taskforce on Mental Health. He is also a member of the Subcommittee on Mental Health and Psychosocial Support for the COVID-19 Pandemic Response in Kenya.
He is notable for his work as a Leader responding to the Westgate Mall Terrorist Attack, Garissa University College Terror Attack, 14 Riverside Complex Terror Attack and others, providing Trauma and Psychosocial Interventions to the affected people, security forces and their families in Kenya. Dr. Githua was on the Panel that drafted the Psychologists and Counsellors Bill 2014 that was signed into Law in 2014. He was awarded as one of the Top 40 under 40 Men in Kenya for 2014/2015, for his contribution in the field of Psychology in Kenya. He was also awarded the Faculty of the Year award, for 2015 at USIU-Africa. So trust me when I say we are in safe hands!
TT: How would you explain what mental health is?
DR.O: Mental Health is the part of our wellness that deals with our emotions, how we think, our cognitions and how we behave. Anything that may affect these functions may be seen to contributing to mental ill health.
TT: What made you focus on forensic psychology?
DR.O: Well, it is a long story, however, the long and short of it, is because at the time I was doing it, I really wanted to advance my psychology by merging it with law enforcement and legal studies. I fell in love with the fact that I would be able to apply my knowledge of psychology in a very niche area of collaborating with the justice system, all the way from law enforcement, court system, corrections and in the national security sector. I was not aware at the time, but was pleasantly surprised to learn that I was the first person in this country to have the qualification. It continues to be one of the best choices I have ever made in my life, because I am privileged to spend my days trying to answer very difficult questions in very innovative manners, collaborating with the best minds I have ever met.
TT: Why is mental health important?
DR.O: To me, mental health is the most important part of health. The World Health Organisation says that, “there is no health, without mental health.” In essence, the brain is the center of our existence, controlling our actions and ambitions, goals and how we experience life. If it is affected negatively, it can amount to a person having a very unfulfilled and difficult life.
TT: Why does society underplay mental health?
DR.O: This question can have as diverse answers as there are cultures, because it is largely a cultural question: depending on what culture the society is in, this affects the way people view issues to do with mental health. In general Kenyan culture, mental health is underplayed because of the narratives around the origins of mental health issues. For some people, it has to do with curses, with others, it has to do with demons, for some still, it is a taboo, and in more modern cultural expression, it is associated with being “weak.” All of these, as you may imagine are myths that are not consistent with what mental unwellness or wellness is about.
TT: Why is therapy important and does Kenya’s health system cater to this?
DR.O: Therapy is important because in addition to having someone to talk to that can listen to you, a therapist is actually trained to be objective and has tools to assist you to navigate some of the most challenging experiences in your life. Yes, over the years, the capacity for psychotherapy has increased, with increased interest in people studying psychology and counseling. When I was starting out about 22 years ago, it was not the case; today, it is more common.
TT: What’s the biggest misconception about mental health?
DR.O: That it is the same thing as mental illness. Closely related to this, is that it is expensive to maintain good mental health.
TT: What are some of the habits one can develop to improve their mental health?
DR.O: First of all, beginning to know yourself, in terms of your baseline; mentally, emotionally, physically, spiritually and behaviorally. Once you know how you normally are, then you can know when you are not okay, because this baseline begins to shift. Secondly, getting into the practice of achieving balance in your life by ensuring you do what I call the rule of thirds: a third of your time should be spent in being productive, either career-wise, education-wise, or otherwise; the second third should be spent resting, preferably asleep, and the last third in a mix of both making meaningful connections and in personal development. Last but not least, making connections with people in our life, be they family, friends, or others that we may interact with, as well as making spiritual connection, however that may look to us.
Click below to watch Dr. Oscar's interview where he sheds light on the state of Kenya with regards to mental health.
Yours in Wellness,
Editor: Loise Machira
Images: Independent Photographer, Strikingly, Ministry of Health
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