Kenya's mental hospital drugs, confines patients

May 24, 2013, 1:35 PM EDT

NAIROBI, Kenya (AP) — Patients at Kenya's only psychiatric hospital are often confined and immobilized using drugs that put them in a comatose-like state, factors that may have led to the recent escape of 40 male patients, an advocacy group said Friday.

Edah Maina, the chief executive officer, of the Kenya Society For the Mentally Handicapped said the Mathari psychiatric hospital is violating its patients' rights under Kenya's constitution.

Patients at Mathari are recognized as people with psychosocial disabilities under the new constitution, which means they should be in a rehabilitation program that does not isolate them from their families, she said.

"They should be in a program ... one that they consent to and is not forced on to them; and among other things, a program that ensures their continued productivity as members of society, not one that immobilizes them through use of outdated/outlawed drugs that turns them into mere zombies," said Maina.

Mathari hospital says that 34 of the patients who escaped 13-days-ago have been brought back by parents, guardians and members of the public.

However, Medical Superintendent at the hospital, Dr Kisivuli Azenga, who is the only one authorized to speak on behalf of the hospital, could not be reached to comment on what triggered the patients' escape.

The hospital, where serious cases of mental illness are referred from the rest of the country, has 675 patients in the general wards.

Azenga said last week the patients escaped after they were incited to run away by a fellow patient after the staff failed to give them drugs on time.

Maina said currently there is no legal and policy framework to ensure patients are treated more humanely.

Poverty, lack of access and the stigma of mental disease prevents many of Kenya's 3.5 million psychologically disabled people from getting the help they desperately need.

University of Nairobi Professor David Ndetei, in an article in the African Mental Health Foundation, says many people in Kenya do not know when they have mental disorders except when "they are grossly disturbed and friends and relatives have to go seeking for hardly available services."

Ndetei however refused to comment about the state of the Mathari hospital. Similarly government officials at the Ministry of Health declined to comment about the state of the hospital.

Currently those who cannot access the right rehabilitation services are locked up and subjected to very inhumane treatments by their families and communities, said Maina, whose organization has about 720,000 members.

She said with the right kind of facilitation by government, treatment for the mentally ill can be affordable.

Maina said misuse of the money government disburses for mental health is the latest challenge the sector faces. She said her society had asked relevant authorities in government to investigate the cases of corruption.

Maina says stigma, which is entrenched in the different traditional believes across Kenya, can be changed if the right kind of awareness and education programs are put in place.

"People with diabetes for instance are not regarded as "sick people." They are people first and anything else including diabetes is a very small part of who they are. We should not allow the different diagnosis in the sector of psychosocial disabilities to define the people with disabilities under that sector. They have a lot more that defines them other than their disabilities," she said.