As the sun sets on this year’s World Mental Health Day, dozens of Kenyans, most of them in their mid-twenties, make their way up Statehouse road.
The steep incline from the Kenyatta Avenue intersection makes them to lean forward, their frames almost parallel to the road, before turning off onto Statehouse Crescent and catching a break strolling down the hill towards the Pawa254 offices.
I am one of these involuntary hikers, and we have chosen to spend our Friday evening at a free screening of an American film depicting the plight of people living with mental health problems.
The movie, Call Me Crazy, features the lives of three women; Lucy, Robin, Maggie, and one man; Eddie, who have to live with different mental health disorders.
Lucy has Schizophrenia, and she occasionally hears voices in her head that nobody else can hear. At times, she takes on a violent personality and there was even a day she locked herself and her younger sister in a room and tried to kill her. Lucy’s family now takes all the doors off the hinges whenever she comes home to visit from the rehabilitation center.
The second story traces the plight of a teenage girl, Grace, who has to live with and take care of her mother, Robin, who has bipolar disorder. On some days, Grace’s mother is perfectly normal and a joy to be around.
But on rare moments that have become increasingly frequent, something seems to come over her and she goes on a deranged tirade that freaks out everyone around her, including Grace’s friends. She has very few friends as a result.
Eddie is a middle aged stand-up comedian who spends his days making people laugh at the club; and his evenings in a fetal position on his bed feeling depressed. His wife does not understand these melancholic episodes and thinks she is to blame for what Eddie is feeling. It takes the intervention of a counselor for the wife to understand that Eddie’s depression is clinical and he needs her love and care.
The fifth and final vignette is that of Maggie, an army officer who was repeatedly raped by a senior officer. She developed Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) after she lets the ordeal fester without talking to anyone about it.
Occasionally, Maggie, a single mother, would go into violent tirades and at one point she almost kills her own father and son.
I find Call Me Crazy an odd, but interesting show. I have never interacted with many people dealing with mental disorders, at least not this intimately.
Sitawa Wafula, a Kenyan mental health activist who is hosting the free film screening, says she hopes these stories will provide a much needed window into the lives of people living with mental health problems.
“I know I can’t solve all of Kenya’s psychological problems but I feel challenged to create a structure of sorts that can be built on,” she says in one of her tweets inviting people to watch the film.
Ms Wafula also battles bipolar disorder and she identifies with Grace’s mom in the film. She tells us that people with psychological problems need love and acceptance more than anything else, even when people don’t understand them.
Sitawa steals the few minutes during the credits of Call Me Crazy to share her own story. She reveals that she was raped when she was younger and it is because she did not get early psychological intervention that she developed a bipolar disorder.
“I would hate for anyone to go through what I have to live with. That is why I have dedicated my life to doing the little I can to cause awareness in my little corner of the world,” she tells us before going to a side table to serve us tea and snacks.
Ms Wafula believes that mental health patients need their humanity to be acknowledged and to be given a listening ear. “Many families often ignore and isolate and hide their relatives dealing with psychological issues because they see them as an embarrassment and an unwanted baggage. But we are people too.”
Earlier in the day, Sitawa posted on her Twitter page that she was looking forward to the Health Cabinet Secretary’s speech to see what the government is planning to do for mental health in Kenya. So I have carried a copy of the speech with me, and I hand it to her just before the film starts rolling.
Speaking at Mathari National Teaching and Referral Hospital where he presided over the commemoration of this year’s World Mental Health Day, Health CS James Macharia mostly listed mental health statistics and outlined facts about different mental health issues.
“I appeal to our partners to collaborate with my Ministry in the provision of quality mental health care services to all in our country. It is the responsibility of all of us to do everything possible to reduce the burden of mental illness in this country,” he concluded.
I ask Ms Wafula what she thinks of the CS’s speech. She sighs and hands the paper back to me and says: “There’s nothing there that I can’t find on Google. Once again, the government has disappointed us.”
But this will not discourage her. Giving up is not an option. She is planning to have similar film screenings in other parts of the country, including Ngong and Kisumu, which are next on her itinerary.
Her attitude reminds me of a character in the film, Grace, whose mother is bipolar and she is given an assignment in school to write an essay about her hero.
“The reason I chose my mother as the hero for this essay is because she faces her battles every day, even though she may never win the war,” says Grace standing before her classmates as the scene fades.
A crazy Friday
Kenyan Journalist, Communications Specialist, and a follower of Jesus Christ. I graduated from the University of Nairobi with a Bachelor’s Degree in Civil and Structural Engineering but decided to pursue a career in journalism.
Worked at Nation Media Group for four years, first as a General Reporter for the Daily Nation before becoming an Investigative and Special Projects writer.
Later transitioned into PR and worked as a Content Associate for two years at Hill+Knowlton Strategies (WPP). Currently a Communications Consultant specialising in Content Strategy and Development.