I read somewhere that mental illness is the new AIDS. The idea is attractive at first glance. It settles the mind very fashionably. When l reflect on my experience of HIV/AIDS growing up in the 90’s here in Nairobi, Kenya and through my university to employment, yes. HIV/AIDS was a disease of exclusion. An illness once acquired spelt loss of income thus poverty, breakdown of relationships, isolation, judgment on a moral platform thus rejection and discrimination, lack of access of proper healthcare, punishment, hopelessness and death. Being HIV positive was a kind of hell on earth. One could not identify with it until they got there and once you did, there was no avenue of communicating back to the land of the living. Anyone suffering some form of mental illness can identify. And the bodies just kept piling up. It was so bad that the prevalence of HIV/AIDS became a national emergency.
I don’t agree that mental illness is the new AIDS. Mental illness made its debut before AIDS, afterall. Yet curiously, what would lead to someone getting it so wrong? It is clear that tunnel vision elements of stigma and denial still rule our thinking. Sad but fact. I do however understand why one would draw such a comparison. We have this notion where we struggle to understand concepts unless they are compared to something we can relate to. This is the basis of arguments when discussing gender balance, equity in society, holistic access to healthcare, protection of battered women and so on and so forth. For example to win the argument on the protection of violence against women, we hear words like, “How can you be so cruel? Just imagine she was your mother.” I am sure you can relate and come up with a few examples of your own. This kinds of arguments have long been the emotional hooks meant to sway decisions while all the while masquerading as logic. What if the person you are speaking to has a sour relationship with his mother? What if this persons’ mother Nyerirized their father? The chances of triggering a defensive reaction are not worth the possible fallout. I dare say that should we insist on drawing comparisons, it is mental health we must draw all else from. At the core of it all, every person ought to be against the violence metted out on any human being. Period! That is common sense. That is humane sense.
Let me be clear, the discussions around mental health care cannot be won while making comparisons. Understanding it wholly and as a stand alone is our only hope. Is it not the state of mental health that all else comes tumbling from? This is in the form of thought and emotional processes which guide the decisions we make and get played out as behavior.
As l argued above, mental illness is not the new AIDS. The only relationship between mental illness and HIV/AIDS is that they are both glaring sore thumbs of lack of leadership in health care. Humane sense is my pitch.
It is the 2000’s, l am all grown up. I look around me and still see symbols of the HIV/AIDS messages of the 90’s in a different kind of form. A mangled vehicle is mounted on the highway to remind me l will die on the road. From the look of those shells which were once were vehicles, there is no way you can survive with your life. It is doom and gloom messages. And you know what, the bodies just keep piling up. We are a people whom to get a behavioral change must be scared into it. Are we? Are we really? Is that who we are as Kenyans? Mimi nimekataa. I reject this idea. Yet when l look around me, this is what surrounds me. “Flossing mauwano” this bold graffiti dons over and under pass bridges from Langata to Embakasi, Kikuyu to the Eastern by-pass.
I think behavior change is best achieved by hope. A people with aspirations will chase after the realization of promises of better. Better lives. Better food. Better housing. Better roads. Better schools. Better hospitals. Better clubs. Better places of worship. Crucially, better feeling of personal and communal wellbeing. Humane sense to win the argument for inclusion of mental health care in the overall holistic healthcare not just in paper but in resources. What we see mental illness is often the byproduct of compromised emotional and cognitive processes over a period; some short others long but never sudden. Thus we must be patient and commit to long term care and follow up to realize actual behavior change and experience the of better for the suffered and their community. There is an urgency to ‘quick fix’ mental illness. Again, as a result the bodies keep piling up.
- I am all grown up and suffering from the insatiable hunger to consolidate leadership, humane sense and resources. True North is the realization of these three elements. It has not been done before. The soldiers and their families guide the process. Their needs inform the deployment of this resources. Having their input has been invaluable in the achievement realization of the good life. Leadership in health care translates to taking up and addressing every and all diseases of the body which limit the mwananchis length, breath and access to the good life.