My mental health placement with International Medical Aid taught me so much about not just mental health and the mental health system in Kenya, but also about myself. I completed my placement at Port Reitz Mental Health and Substance Abuse Unit and I only wish I would have had longer. Port Reitz taught me strength by surviving and adapting to minimal standards of working conditions due to lack of funding. The undying support by the staff was above impressive considering the limited resources they have. Additionally, the stigmatization around mental health in Kenya was at the forefront of challenges experienced by staff and patients alike. It is very confronting to accept that for so many families they are related to ‘crazy people who have lost their mind’ to quote many family members directly.
I have a deepened interest in creating awareness of mental health and mental illness in Kenya and other African or third world countries who deserve to be educated on the need for mental health facilities but also in order for them to understand their own family and community members who have been struck with mental illness. This is how I would like to shape my career, working in these respective countries to help combat the stigmatization surrounding mental illness, and Port Reitz has definitely helped me understand the need for this and the way that the families need to be educated.
My first day was difficult and heavily confronting, especially seeing men in blue and white striped clothing in the isolation unit. The prison like structure at Port Reitz is a very difficult environment for staff to confidently and efficiently assist in the patient’s recovery. My second day created a change in me, when a young patient was walking beside me saying ‘don’t be scared.’ It was in that moment that I realised that perhaps my body language had shown I was reserved, and that was the last thing that I wanted the patients to feel. We had arrived at Port Reitz being debriefed that the patients could be violent, and that was the understanding that I had in the beginning. I wasn’t scared of the illness, but I was scared of the ideas about the patients that had been pushed onto me. The heavy sedation of the patients meant that I never actually saw them act out or be violent, and with me they were grateful, interested and always showed a smile. Their happiness was contagious because it was a little bit of hope that I needed to see in what could be such a difficult place to seek such an emotion.
The staff at Port Reitz were so committed to ensuring I had a fulfilling experience, and I could not thank them enough for the time and effort they put into ensuring that I was gaining everything possible from my time there. But amongst my gratefulness, they were so thankful that I had been there, a feeling I could not comprehend as I could never have done as much for Port Reitz as it did for me. I learnt so much about counselling in my time with the clinical psychologist. It was interesting because many outpatient cases will only ever visit for counselling once, which meant that much different counselling approaches needed to be taken compared to Western cultures in which clients will often come back multiple times.
During my time at Port Reitz there was a visit from the local MP who made numerous promises to the hospital, ones that I knew he was not necessarily obliged to follow through with. I wrote him an email myself, hopefully making him a little bit more accountable for what he had said, but also as a desperate plea to do something for a place that had shared so much love, generosity and compassion with me. The political system severely underfunds and does not recognise mental illness and the needs of these hospitals to continue functioning adequately. However, it is only recently that my own country, Australia, has been able to combat these fears and misunderstandings surrounding mental illness. I only wish that I could bring our politicians together and let the Kenyan government be more educated on these issues. The government body should be the first people to promote mental health awareness, but without this structure in Kenya the mental health facilities and those suffering with mental illness will continue to suffer because the stigmatisation is at the forefront of the challenges for both staff and clients.
Whilst I cannot discuss specific counselling cases, I can guarantee that each one gave me a unique cultural perspective on the differences between Western and Kenyan approaches to dealing with relative issues, and the challenges that cultural and religious views can have on dealing with specific cases. It is not possible to throw Western ideologies and ways of counselling into Kenya because that would neglect the cultural differences that are so apparent and necessary when dealing with individuals.
Overall, I would not change my experience with IMA for the world. I am so privileged to be invited into Port Reitz and be immersed in the environment of both the staff and the patients. A piece of me will stay with this hospital forever.