When I chose to do a degree in psychology, everybody thought I was nuts. My parents could barely understand why I would do such a thing; they thought I was wasting my potential. My relatives tried everything they could to convince me to do something more ‘serious’. Which is mostly just a euphemism for ‘medicine’. After all, which relative doesn’t want a doctor in the family? No matter what I said, I couldn’t make them see the value of a psychology degree. Frankly, it was frustrating and that drove me to be even more resolute in my decision.
I’ve finished school now and I can confidently say that I made the right decision. Even my parents came around after some of their peers told them that it was not only a good field to be interested in, but an important one as well. However, my choice opened my eyes to how little mental health means to us in this country. There is a reason my family thought so little of my decision to pursue mental health as a career option.
In Kenya, even the suggestion of words like ‘counseling’ or ‘therapy’ puts people on the defensive. We are quick to say things like “I’m not mad!” The way we see it, those things are for people who are clinically insane or people who are suicidal. And many times, even the ones who are suicidal are not in that category—they are just attention-seekers who deserve to be punished. That’s why suicide attempts are criminal acts. People here would sooner die than admit they have a mental health problem and need help. And because of this, my parents were convinced there is no market for a degree like mine. Nobody is tripping over themselves to hire a psychologist, they said. Their fears were well-founded: mental health doesn’t matter to us very much. The stigma is real.
The truth is, it doesn’t take a lot to realize that our attitude towards mental health is catching up with us. The way life is set up right now is not exactly the best sort of environment for things like peace, happiness, contentment. We are always stressed, frustrated, depressed, anxious, angry, afraid. All the while putting up fronts that say we are not. We pretend that we are happy, that our lives are fine, that everything is going as it should and we have got it together. What is social media for, if not letting others know that we too are living our best life? And despite all this, we continue to shun any need for mental health care. The alarmingly high suicide rates which continue to escalate each year are somehow not yet enough to show us that we need to stop, take a minute and evaluate the state of our hearts and minds.
How are you really doing? How is your family really doing? Your job? And what about your friends? Do you know what is really going on inside them? You see, when we greet each other we do it as a formality. When someone asks you how you are, you don’t take that as an invitation to talk about what is really happening in your life. We say we are good and we carry on with small talk, with smiles. Anything to maintain the illusion that we are okay. Because everybody else seems to be doing okay.
But it’s a new year. Last year the word ‘self-care’ was such a buzzword. We used it so much that it lost quite a bit of meaning. This year we are going to really take care of ourselves. We are going to set aside time to look inside ourselves and ask difficult questions. Am I happy? Am I satisfied with who I am and what I do? Am I still letting toxic relationships steal my joy? This year we are going to pay attention to our mental health. We are going to be honest with ourselves and recognize when we are struggling and need someone to help us figure it out.
Mental health is just as important as physical health. And mental health care is necessary for everybody. You wouldn’t stay at home and shrug it off if you had a broken leg, would you? So why would you do that same thing to your mind? Also, did you know that your mind and your body are so interconnected that when there is a problem in one it often manifests in the other? Sometimes, it’s not that you’re physically ill. It’s that your mind is not getting the care it deserves.
For many people, new years mean fresh starts. You probably have a list of resolutions you made, things that you think will make you better in some way. And despite the cynicism that always accompanies such displays of unwavering hope, I believe that new year’s resolutions are a good thing. Just make sure your list isn’t just about your physical health. Your mental health matters too.
Author: Michelle Korir
Michelle Chepchumba is contributor at Wanjiru Kihusa. She loves cats and enjoys reading and writing in an attempt to discover the mysteries of the human mind. She also works in mental health and writes about life at www.thescroll.co.ke.