It’s World Mental Health Day and I thought this would be as good a time as ever to write this essay. It took a lot of effort because my concentration levels have been dismal lately, but I powered through and here it is.

For as long as I can remember, one of my deepest fears has always been that I’ll one day descend into insanity. That that will be how my life ultimately ends; with my mind helplessly folding in on itself.  Even as a child, I felt this acutely, like I was not quite normal and needed to put in a concerted amount of effort to be anything close to it. So I read a lot and participated in all artistic opportunities available to me, escaping into make-believe worlds where I could hide as I revelled in the celebration of difference and eccentricity. Still, I could never completely avoid the feeling that everyone knew my secret and could see right through me. 

Things only got worse as I waded through the murkiness of adolescence. I was a straight A student but by the time I got to high school, I could barely concentrate long enough to keep up with my studies, and never quite recovered. I was still as brilliant as I could be, but there was a fog that settled on my brain, suffocating the neural pathways that had helped carry me joyfully through my childhood. It took another decade, depressive episodes, disappointments and frustration before I figured out that it had a name.

The first time I heard about ADHD was through watching American movies and TV shows. I knew what it was but it never occurred to me that I could have it. Surely, I was a good girl that never got into trouble. A good student that was first in my class through primary school. I was a prefect, captain of my sport’s house, starred in plays and musicals, had friends and was popular. This is not anything like what they said people with ADHD are like. Sure I got easily overwhelmed, forgot where I put things sometimes, my mind ran at a million miles per hour when I was excited and I had this ability to focus on a task I enjoyed for hours on end, but I had artistic inclinations and so I chalked it up to artistic eccentricities.

I was aware of depression and recognized it when I became depressed in my late teens. Instead of the fog that had become a familiar companion, depression was a heavy storm, unforgiving in its destruction of my entire being. This was the majority of my 20s; wrestling with God and losing. I would go through an episode and feel like I was on the edge of a cliff into a dark, bottomless pit, holding on to the edge trying not to fall off but feeling my arms and fingers slowly giving way. I’d wonder how much more I could take before my mind gave in and I was swallowed up by the darkness. It was absolutely terrifying and I still shiver when I think about it. I’m thankful I haven’t experienced this in years, but the fear of it returning is always present.

The fear started as a legitimate reaction to a terrifying experience, and then just never left. Anxiety feels like there’s cement in my veins. My body is in permanent fight or flight mode and sometimes it gets so overwhelmed that it calls to the darkness. It’s a tug of war that I had to learn to manage through a lot of work in therapy, because I was never going to win by fighting myself.

ADHD is heavily undiagnosed in girls and women. Even more so when they look like me, and live in a country where mental health up until recently was not a priority, and where healthcare is basically a luxury. Mental healthcare is expensive and even with insurance, limited. And with a religious majority that is touchy about mental health, depression is a prayer item and anxiety is a lack of faith. There’s so many obstacles that make it difficult to get actual help, that it’s not surprising the statistics around mental health in Kenya are steadily grim.

I’m relatively privileged, and it’s still tough for me to access care. I have been lucky to have supportive people in my life and access to a wider community especially online through which I’ve learned so much. It’s a tough situation because the systems are not really there, though there is a concerted effort with the The Government launched the Kenya Mental Health Action Plan 2021-2025, and a push for training of healthcare professionals, media and the general public in matters of mental health. However, the situation is what it is for now.

Normal is a debatable concept. However, when people generally use it, it’s in reference to people who are neurotypical. For those of us who are neurodivergent, we find ourselves having to exert considerable amounts of effort to perform this normalcy. It’s exhausting but in a world where even the most progressive people can be terribly biased, I find myself putting on this performance so as not to lose opportunities or be ostracized. From experience, I’ve seen even people who espouse human rights and feminist ideals and even work in these spaces, show a horrific lack of care to those suffering from a mental illness.

On this World Mental Health Day, I think mental health treatments should be subsidized and accessible the way treatments for HIV and TB are. I think therapy should be normalised for all and not just for when you’re struggling. I think mental health conversations should be regularly had at all levels of society. I think schools should teach about mental health. I think religious leaders should preach about mental health from a place of knowledge and empathy. I think taking a mental health day even from work should be normalised. I think mental health clinics and health professionals should be increased. I think suicide should be decriminalized in Kenya. The stigma needs to end.

There’s only so much I can do as an individual. I’m glad that I disabused myself of the notion of cosplaying superheroes. I am one person who has a finite amount of energy and deserves to live the fullest life I can manage. So I focus on taking care of myself as best as I can by prioritizing my mental health in the way I live. I use my platforms for advocacy and to support those that need it. I put in the effort to create and be part of nurturing communities. And I imagine. A lot. Because imagination is the path to creation. I imagine a world that values every human and so all are provided for so we can live lives of dignity. I imagine a world where hatred and greed lose to love. I imagine a world where all minds and bodies are considered normal and beautiful. I imagine a world where I no longer have to perform or mask. I imagine a world where we’re all free.

If you or anyone you know needs help, reach out to Befrienders Kenya.

mwendeLifestyleADHD,anxiety,depression,Mental Health Act,world mental health day
It's World Mental Health Day and I thought this would be as good a time as ever to write this essay. It took a lot of effort because my concentration levels have been dismal lately, but I powered through and here it is. For as long as I can remember,...