Time to increase mental health services for teens

Friday, January 29th, 2021 00:00 |
Mathari Mental Hospital. Photo/Courtesy

The reopening of schools following the nine months Covid-19 break continues to pose a challenge for stakeholders in Kenya.

Just months ago, there was uncertainty as to whether schools were prepared to take in students due to overwhelming public health demands requiring social distancing, hand washing and wearing of masks. 

Stakeholders were particularly skeptical about the government’s infrastructural and financial investments towards building of more classes, purchasing more desks and hiring more teachers.

Teachers and parents equally prepared for the resumption of learning.

The question however, is whether our children were adequately prepared for school reopening.

As has been the case, the media reported on last minute rush to buy books and uniforms and hike in fares to far-flung schools. 

But amidst this commotion, it appears we did not anticipate our children’s social and psychological readiness.

Rising cases of school indiscipline are a testament to this state of affairs. It started with organised demonstration at a girls’ school in western Kenya on allegations of attempted rape and negligence. 

This has been followed with damaging reports of children physically and verbally attacking teachers and other caregivers.

An 18-year-old Form Three boy is facing murder charges after assaulting and killing a school guard.

Another in Kisii county is under arrest for attacking two teachers with a knife.

Three boys were arrested in Kirinyaga county for burning down a school while a schoolgirl was recently recorded beating up her male teacher after he tried to discipline her. 

Many other cases have gone unreported even as child development experts provide insights into what is troubling the young ones.

They assert that stress, parental neglect and drug abuse amongst the adolescents are the trigger factors for the ongoing indiscipline in schools.

Indeed, time at home affected children in ways many adults ignored. Their social lives came to a standstill at a time when peer presence and approval matters most to them.

Some spent the period around caregivers who were emotionally and mentally unsound, and had to bear the brunt of their instabilities.

There are also those who endured physical and sexual abuse while others were exposed to drugs and alcohol either through their caregivers or peer pressure

As is our culture, issues of mental health are rarely discussed and even when we do, it is with an undertone of shame and fear.

This often leaves a vacuum filled not by solutions but by conspiracy theories and blame games.

As it is, teachers are blaming parents for their soft-handedness with children during the break while the parents feel that teachers should have anticipated such incidences and prepared adequately for them.

At this crossroad, however, are young souls in need of care and guidance. 

The need for deeper and strategic discussions on adolescent mental health cannot be understated.

Notably, there has been a lot of advocacy in Kenya on adolescent reproductive health and youth friendly clinics have since been institutionalised on the same.

It is time perhaps we also for advocacy for increased access to adolescent mental health services.

These should be coupled with access to parental or family counseling because a child is as a good as the environment he or she lives in. 

Most critical is the need for a national therapy where we can relive our values as a community, which is in the everyday things such as what we talk about in our children’s presence, how we talk to each other in the traffic jam and how we resolve our difference physically and on social media.

Children learn not by what we say, but by what they see. — The writer is an Advocate of the High Court

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