Covid stress pushing more people to suicide

Friday, September 11th, 2020 00:00 |
Irene Wanjiru Wainaina, a counselling psychologist. Photo/PD/COURTESY

Rebecca Mutiso @rebeccamutheu1

At least 370 people have committed suicide in Kenya in the last six months, pointing to the gravity of the mental health situation in the country since the outbreak of Covid-19 pandemic.

 As the world marks the World Suicide Prevention Day today, a preliminary report from the Ministry of Health seen by the People Daily shows that out of 370 people who committed suicide during the pandemic, 93 cases were from Central Kenya with 87 of them being men and six women. Nairobi accounts for more than 60 cases and Mombasa 50.

 The report titled Effects of Covid-19 on mental health and complied by a multi-agency on coronavirus response reveals that since March, more than 1.9 million Kenyans have suffered mental stress occasioned by the adverse affects of Covid-19, including job losses and death.

This presents a 53 per cent increase compared to the same period last year.

Mental health

In what could signal that the country is staring at a mental health crisis, the report shows that at least one person in each family in Kenya is struggling with a mental-related issue.

 Dr Simon Njuguna, the director of mental health said they are still compiling the report but confirmed that the number of suicide cases in the country since March is worrying.

 Mental health practitioners in the country are also raising an alert over mental health situation in the country, warming that the country is tottering towards a “perfect storm” if action is not taken.

Lukoye Atwoli, Professor of Psychiatry and Dean of Medical College at Aga Khan University said during a crisis such as Covid-19 where people experience job losses and economic hardships the risk of suicide is high.

“ Any responsible government could anticipate an increase in mental health issues and take appropriate action such as increasing the number of mental health care practitioners, bringing mental health services closer to the people, training more clinical and psychiatry personnel to deal with the crisis and investing in research,” he said.

 Lukoye said the number of suicide cases in the Kenya are under-reported because of the stigma surrounding mental health in Kenya.

“It is not easy for people to talk about mental health issues.  A study conducted in Western Kenya some time back showed that at least one in eight people had experienced suicidal behaviour. This is a tip of the iceberg,” he said.

Cause of death

  Last year, World Health Organisation said close to 800,000 die due to suicide every year with this being the third leading cause of death in people aged between 15 and 19 years.

In March, the organisation released a document on mental health and psychosocial considerations during Covid-19 outbreak to support mental and psychosocial well-being of different target groups during the Covid outbreak.

Irene Wanjiru Wainaina, a psychiatrist at the Psychiatric Disability Organisation of Kenya attests to the fact that in the last six months there has been a “flood” of mental issue cases in the country, triggered by the pandemic. 

In a week, Wainaina sees between three to four clients as opposed to the pre-Covid time where she could see only two or none in a week.

 She attributes the increase to the social and economic hardships such as job losses Kenyans have experienced within this period.

Wainaina, who is also a suicide survivor and suffers from bipolar, says Covid has brought a fair share of challenges to people with pre-existing mental conditions.

 “There is a lot of anxiety because people do not know what tomorrow holds. This does not rub very well with a person with a mental illness and we are seeing an increasing rates of relapses,” she said.

 Wainaina said people with mental health issues faced challenges accessing drugs and care, especially during the lockdown, leading to a relapse.

 As a person who has attempted suicide twice, Wainaina said she has struggled with anxiety and mood swings but a strong support system has helped her sail through the storm.

“I lost my dad this year and an uncle committed suicide recently.  My mum is diabetic and so the fact that people with pre-existing medical conditions are at a higher risk of contracting Covid-19 pandemic has put me on the edge. It has been a difficult time,” she says.


She advises people to be compassionate and look out for people who are behaving in a funny way.

Harriet Musimbi Kigaro, a medical psychologists and mental health advocate at Growth Catalysts said cases of depression in the last six months have increased.

“I am currently working in a county level hospital and I have been called to address cases of attempted suicide at least twice, especially in male wards.

 A study conducted by two researchers, Florence Jaguga and Edith Kwobah and published in the International Journal of Mental Health Systems, recommends that the government should prepare a formal mental health response plan for Covid-19 and allocate funding to respond to the crisis.

“We propose that the medical doctors manning the 24-hour call centre receive online trainings on mental health and psychological support following which the service is expanded to incorporate delivery of brief psychological interventions to the general public,” she said.

More on News