“When I share my story, it makes me feel free,” says Benard – a Kenyan businessman, and a mental health advocate who lives in Nairobi.
Benard started experiencing issues with his mental health in 2013, after a stressful event: “I started doing funny, funny, things. I started hearing voices, following me. I could see people like they want to steal from me. I could hear voices, telling me do this, do that.”
Benard had several similar episodes over the years. Although he sought help from doctors, the visits would end with him being given medication to take, but without any explanation as to what was wrong. No one ever told him his diagnosis.
"[When I went to hospital before], I was usually taken by my parents. The doctor will usually tell me to step outside, then he would talk with my parents. Then I would be called and told to take certain medicines. That was all. I didn’t know what was happening with me. To me, they were supernatural powers, so I didn’t even ask questions.”
It is estimated that 1 in 4 people who seek healthcare in Kenya have a mental health condition. But there aren’t enough mental health professionals, or clinics operating across the country. There is also a lot of stigma and discrimination around mental health, making it hard for people to seek or find the support they need.
In 2018, Benard had a major relapse, which led him to seek help from Kamili Organisation, which is supported by Comic Relief in partnership with the UK Government. Kamili runs a mental health clinic in Nairobi – offering support, counselling, and access to medication.
Benard met with Martin, the lead nurse. Martin diagnosed Benard with schizoaffective disorder, a lifelong condition that can be managed with medicine and therapy, which Martin explains:
“Schizoaffective disorder is a mental illness that will actually affect someone’s beliefs, someone’s mood. When I first encountered Ben, I saw this very young man who was quite confused.
“He didn’t have any knowledge of his condition. To him, whatever he was experiencing was definitely normal. To other people, to the family members, they were the ones who actually noticed the change.”
Speaking to Martin at Kamili was the start of a major turning-point for Benard: “[Martin] was very friendly and the way he talked to me he gave me hope of continuing with life because when I Googled that illness, I thought it was the end of my life.”
Benard was also introduced to Lydiah, his counsellor. Since seeking help at Kamili, Benard’s wellbeing and mental health has improved, and he’s not had another relapse.
Lydiah said, “[Ben] was thirsty for information. He just wanted to know what is wrong with him...I talked to him about what the illness was like and what he was expected to do and what was my responsibility in that session. And now he walked the journey.”
A CHAMPION FOR OTHERS
Since then, things have improved drastically for Benard. He is now also a Mental Health Champion with another organisation, Basic Needs Basic Rights [who also receive Comic Relief funding].
Benard shares his personal experience of mental illness with the public, to help reduce stigma and discrimination, and so others know how and when to seek help. Benard says:
“A Mental Health Champion is someone who has lived experience with mental health and talks to the members of the public to end stigma and discrimination amongst people who are suffering from mental illness.
"We usually do advocacy work with other organisations in Nairobi. Whereby we share our stories with members of the public and then we educate them on the signs... and where to get help.
"For me, it took me five years to know my illness, but when I educate people about mental illness symptoms, they get learning and they are able to get them early."
Lead Nurse Martin has seen a huge change in Benard since he received his support from Kamili and became a Champion:
“As time has been able to go by, I’m able to see a very different person. Someone who is actually enjoying life. Someone who is actually comfortable being himself. And someone who is very passionate about talking to other young people about mental health.“
He’s a person who’s really caring. He really takes care of the people he has in his support group.”
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