Refining Mental Health in Penal Institutions

So, here is the thing, for most of us, before we received insight on mental health, we probably envisaged mental health disorders, to somehow, be exclusively associated with people battling extreme psychiatric syndromes; or maybe, those who are at the brink of landing in a psychiatric hospital. Well, that might have some truth in it, but maybe not entirely accurate.

On the other hand, for some of us, even though we have been enlightened on the intricacies of mental health, we seemingly shy away from opening up when we encounter challenges that eat up our mind. But why do we tend to sweep our challenges under the carpet? The fear of being perceived as weak? The fear of revealing personal or family troubles? Well, I know one toxic trait, one that is especially directed towards the male gender; men are told to man up! Yes, man up! Even when they are vulnerable, broken and facing anguish.

But hey, I would like to let you know that everyone experiences vulnerable movements, and it is okay to seek help. Whereas knowing where to get help might be a challenge in itself, the fact remains to be; seeking help is not a sign of weakness. In Brené Browns’words, “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.” Therefore, since mental vulnerability is an emotion that can hit any of us, why not just face it by seeking help?

So why all the hype on mental health? Mental health has recently been a widely discussed topic across the world. Similarly, these discussions have been underway in Africa, notwithstanding that many of the natives are still ignorant of mental health issues; unfortunately, even the academically exposed.

Besides the numerous mental health discussions that drift around on social media and other platforms, few practical solutions have been availed for those who are in need of them. In Kenya today, accessibility to mental health services is almost difficult. By mental health services I mean; counseling, psychological assessment, psychiatry and rehabilitation. The minimal access to these services has resulted in a high rise of issues such as suicides caused by depression and substance use disorders as a coping mechanism for prolonged stress.

The fact that as a free citizen access to mental health services is expensive and challenging, our fellow citizens in correctional centers such as prisons are having it rough. On the bright side, in our correctional institutions, many organizations have majored their collaboration in the rehabilitation of the inmates; some like Nafisika Trust, have put an emphasis on mental health training.

I have been working with Nafisika Trust as a trainer. Predominantly, I have majored in mental health training where I engage inmates on mental health topics. I would add that the training sessions have not only been knowledgeable but also therapeutic. The major thing I have noticed is that our brothers, sisters, mothers, fathers and cousins are longing to be listened to without premeditated judgment but with empathy. From their disclosures, you would notice insecurity, anxiety and worry in their expressions about their children, wives, husbands and families in general.

This is a clear indication that for their mental wellness, they need access to mental health services at their disposal. Yes, as Nafisika Trust, we have made considerate steps to ensure that inmates have access to someone who listens to them, offers hope and shows care and understanding. Nevertheless, I feel like there is more that can be done in ensuring that people we care about are not only undergoing behavioral rehabilitation but also emotional and psychological rehabilitation.

The more we can do is to incorporate a unified effort from all stakeholders. From our government, organizations, welfare departments at our correctional facilities to individuals such as you and I. Proposedly, the government should ensure that it legislates policies that ensure accessibility to mental health services in most if not all correctional centers. This can be achieved by enhancing the availability and accessibility to mental health professionals such as counselors, clinical psychologists and psychiatric nurses in these facilities. The wellness departments in these institutions should ensure that inmates have access to therapeutic activities; gardening, sporting activities and other hobbies. These activities provide mental wellness to the inmates.

To the forefront NGO’s such as Nafisika Trust; the work you do in prison spaces has been of great impact in supporting the rehabilitation of our incarcerated citizens. Kudos to you! Nevertheless, we should consider widening the scope of mental health as we support the rehabilitation of inmates. A reminder that a healthy nation is a wealthy nation. As individuals, let us be active citizens in minimizing stigma surrounding mental health by providing support to our friends and family members to access mental health services in different capacities.

Conclusively, I would like to echo that physical health and mental health have unbreakable bond. The two are interdependent and harm on one can causatively impair the other.  Therefore, as we enhance capacity building in ensuring Universal Health Coverage, mental health should not be a neglected part of the vision. It is high time we come to the realization that our mind control our decisions, thoughts and behaviors; a distortion to any part of this trio can be catastrophic not only to an individual but to a nation!

Written by Muchira Wanjiku

Counselor and Training Associate||NAFISIKA TRUST


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