When the nationwide doctors’ strike started on 5th December, a story about patients absconding from the Mathari National Referral & Teaching hospital in Nairobi was widely reported both at home and abroad.
The discussion that followed then showed some lack of empathy for the patients. Many of the social media posts were to a large extent made with an intention of evoking humour out of the misfortune of those patients.
In that regard I wish to put forth a few points illustrating that the patients who left the facility on that day did not in any way pose a risk to the general public.
1. Approximately half of the inpatients at Mathari hospital are already discharged to go home. They are therefore already recovered but in many cases simply abandoned by their families for various reasons.
2. Among those who are not discharged a vast majority are to a large extent well oriented in time, person and place. They know that they are unwell and understand why they are in hospital. They can safely travel between the hospital and home.
3. A mentally ill patient is rarely ill ALL THE TIME. Therefore someone suffering from psychosis for example will only have some short periods of a break from reality (hallucinations & delusions). Except in severe illness most of the time a mentally ill person is well. Its just like a diabetic patient, the sugar levels are hardly elavated all the time.
4. A majority of the mentally ill patients have access to current information including news. Towards the doctors’ and nurses’ strike most of them were aware. Remember they are patients and not prisoners. Even prisoners should have access to information.
5. No health facility (mental or otherwise) can run in the absence of doctors & nurses. A small number of the mental inpatients will not have insight therefore the inpatient environment may be harmful to the patients themselves. The absence of authority figures in the wards who are doctors & nurses means that a few things could go terribly wrong.
6. In the event a strike is planned in the public hospitals (in future), hospital management should organise with relatives to pick up patients from the facilities. Alternative methods of clearing bills can be sought but it should not be a reason for keeping patients in wards without doctors & nurses.
7. Mentally ill patients are not violent. A majority of violent crimes are committed by persons who do not have any mental illness. In fact the mentally ill are likely to be victims rather than perpetrators of violence.
8. Social media posts advising motorists to avoid Thika road on 5th December because some patients had escaped Mathari were stigmatising.
9. The media has a role in correctly reporting on mental health because media remains the most reliable source of information for the public. Ignorance is no defence.
10. Given that every 1 in 4 people that you see is likely to suffer from a mental illness at some point in their lives, the kenyan public must begin treating the mentally ill with a lot more empathy. It could be you next time or a friend or a relative. The plight of persons with mental illness should never be seen as a source of entertainment.
Dr. CHITAYI MURABULA.
Mental Health Advocate.