The diagnosis of bipolar eight years ago was a huge relief because I finally knew what was wrong with me. I was so relieved because I said – ok, so I am not lazy, I’m not erratic, I’m not unfocused. I’m sick.
I got the diagnosis before I got married. My then boyfriend (now husband) was ok with it. But some of the people in his circle were like, “no, no, no, no… you should not get married to her, how you will be able to cope with her condition?”
Bipolar comes across as being this huge thing where people are violent. In Kenya there are all these negative stereotypes. So there was some opposition to us getting married. It was quite difficult for me. But my husband stuck to his guns, he said “I’m doing this, this is the woman I want to marry and we’re getting married”.
The stigma is still very difficult.
I run a small business as a beauty consultant. Sometimes I have to say I am sick without saying what is wrong, because I’m not sure how people will respond. Sometimes they might say, “this woman is crazy”.
I have a client who is a medical doctor - a paediatrician. I disclosed to her that I am sick and she said, “A lot of this is in your head. It’s not a real thing.” When you talk to an educated person who is a medical professional and they still don’t get it, how do you expect a normal person to understand?
Sometimes I talk to people about my condition and they say, “Snap out of it. There must be something wrong with you if you cannot will yourself out of bed.” There’s been quite a bit of that through the years.
For anyone experiencing a mental health problem, I think the first thing is self-acceptance. Accept that yes, this thing is real and I have it. I have to live with it.
Another thing that helps is information. Go online. Find out as much as you can about your condition. Begin to identify for yourself how this thing affects you.
Most important of all, build a support network. I have cut unsupportive people out of my life. What I’ve been left with is a core people who support me. If I need to talk, I know I can call somebody and they’ll say, “ok, let’s talk”.
Mental health is still spoken about really badly in Kenya. We have a Swahili expression, ‘mwenda wazimu’, which means mad man or mad person. There’s so much misunderstanding. There is lots of push-back on the fact people should behave themselves - they should not be sick.
One of the main things that needs to happen in Kenya is a lot of sensitization. With HIV / AIDS we can see a good example of this. Especially in Africa, for the longest time people were dying of AIDS. People used to believe this was caused by witchcraft or bad karma. Or because someone was not following cultural practices or expectations.
Because of the advocacy, today we see there is very little stigma. All the campaigns changed how people think.
We need that kind of sensitization around mental health. So people understand this is a medical illness, not something mysterious.
It is something that is treatable. It is something somebody can live with and manage. It is something you can take medication for - and there’s nothing wrong with that.