Last Saturday, CNN broadcast a special feature, “Locked Up and Forgotten,” looking at the situation of people with mental disabilities in Kenya. Previews for the show spoke of “Kenya’s terrible secret” and showed disturbing images of people in dire living conditions.
While it’s great that finally the international media is paying some attention to people with mental disabilities, it is a shame that coverage is almost always sensationalistic and further dehumanizes people who are already relegated to the fringes of society.
The stigmatization of people with mental disabilities runs very deep, and it is very difficult for them to shed it. Sensationalist media coverage does everybody a disservice because it reinforces the message that disabled people are hopeless, pathetic burdens to society and that if only they received more charitable assistance, perhaps society could take a breath and forget about them—again—at least until the next scandalous story breaks.
A few years ago in Croatia, a number of people with intellectual disabilities living in an institution died of food poisoning. The media published scandalous stories about the deaths. Though the deaths were never investigated, and no criminal charges were ever brought, the government’s knee jerk reaction to making the scandal disappear was to pour money into renovating the institution’s kitchen. This move set back the progress that had been made to reform the social welfare system and move people out of institutions. Instead of investing in the real solution—community-based housing and social support services—the government chose to continue segregating people with intellectual disabilities in a large institution, but this time with a fancy kitchen and a new paint job.
Similarly, the CNN program devoted significant coverage to Mathari Hospital, Kenya’s only psychiatric facility. CNN filmed people drugged into oblivion, shuffling about the place with nothing to do and no way out. One could not help but notice the absolutely appalling physical conditions and the overwhelming, oppressive atmosphere of hopelessness. An interview with the Minister of Medical Services revealed that “there is no money” to improve the hospital. The message was clear: let’s pour as much cash as possible into renovating and equipping Mathari so that it isn’t so hideously scary looking and sweep the real solution under the carpet.
Investing in Mathari (except in things that are urgently required to prevent injury or loss of life) is the worst possible thing that could happen for people with mental disabilities in Kenya. There is a great advantage in developing community-based services in Kenya: there are no institutions other than Mathari, so there is no system to dismantle. Investment in bricks and mortar to perpetuate the segregation of people in Mathari would be an enormous mistake and a very poor investment. Pouring money into Mathari can, of course, make it more comfortable. But it can never make in into a place of freedom and participation.
Only a fraction of the people in Kenya in need of support services end up in Mathari, thankfully. But most of the rest are isolated at home without the support they need. Given that there is vibrant civil society engagement in the mental health field in Kenya, it is disappointing that CNN’s program focused on touring with one NGO representative, going from village to village, peering into the dark rooms where disabled people spend their lives, then moving onto the next to do the same. Why just the misery and not the real solutions? Would the story be less scintillating if viewers know that there are real solutions? Would it force viewers to think about their own prejudices about people with disabilities? Would it be too boring to find out that there are real solutions being implemented right now in Kenya, and these solutions are actually cost-effective?
A number of organizations are providing support to families in Kenya so that people with mental disabilities can live with dignity in the communities to which they have always belonged—as equal citizens—not “locked up and forgotten.” There are NGOs supporting self advocacy and mental health service user groups to grow into strong advocacy movements, and one organization has obtained access to education and other services for people with autism. There are NGOs helping vulnerable communities to help themselves with poverty alleviation programs.
The real solutions are already happening in Kenya. But the work is far from over. There is an urgent need for real political will to invest in these efforts so that support and services are available to all people who need them. It’s that simple. But we cannot be distracted by the horror stories or be led to believe that renovating buildings and buying equipment are the solutions. The media can play a critical role in helping societies reform the way we see people with mental disabilities. I hope that they take up this challenge.