Relief SCENE:Health
Mental Illness Cases Up with Somali Refugees
Post Traumatic Stress and Drug Abuse on the Rise in Nairobi's Eastleigh District
By M ARTE 05/06/2011
Doctors Meeting on Mental Illness in Nairobi
©Somalia Report
Doctors Meeting on Mental Illness in Nairobi
Cases of mental illness among Somali refugees living in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi are on the rise, according to a group of Somali medical practitioners who have been treating cases in the Eastleigh estate, a suburb east of the capital.

The cases include mild depression, post-traumatic stress disorder attributed to the raging conflict in Somalia, a high level of substance abuse, and daily challenges facing the refugees in the city.

"I can tell you that mental illness among the Somali urban refugees is very high. I can estimate that it’s around 80 percent," said Dr. Abdikadir Hussein Warsame, who works with the research organization, African Metal Health.

Dr Abdikadir, who also runs a clinic in Eastleigh dominated by Somali refugees, said cases are on the rise and primarily attributed to the decades long war.

"Out of the 10 patients that we see daily at our clinic, at least 8 show some signs of metal illness. You see most of the urban refugees in city have at one time in their lives been exposed to traumatic situations in Somalia. Some of them had watched their loved ones die in front of their eyes, women were raped, and so on," Dr Abdikadir explains.

He is among more than 40 Somali medical practitioners who recently met in Nairobi to find answers to the numerous medical problems faced by Somali urban refugees. "The practitioners have all fled from the conflict in Somalia and are now struggling to make a living in the city through private practice. This trend has been growing over the years and what we see now is a serious situation that needs to be addressed urgently," the doctor warns.

Researching the Problem

Recently, African Mental Health launched research into the cases of mental health within the community. Hundreds of thousands of Somali refugees have fled into Kenya and settled in the city ever since the toppling of the Somali military regime in 1991. Most of them have been engaging in booming businesses that have transformed the skyline of the estate in a short period.

According to the doctors, post-traumatic stress disorder - also known as PTSD - is caused by traumatic events that happen to the person in the past. "Some of the patients may not even know that they suffer from PTSD," says Dr Abdikadir, adding that in most cases the person may appear normal as he or she carries out their daily activities. The problem becomes apparent once the person is again exposed to another tragic event. For example, if a person who has watched a kin been killed in front of their eyes may suffer the effects if he or she comes around an accident or violent scene."

The urban conditions in which the refugees find themselves like Nairobi are not helping the situation. They encounter numerous challenges including lack of employment and proper healthcare. Some of the refugees also face problems with law enforcement agencies due to their legal status. Although some of the refugees have been recognized as urban refugees five yeas ago, arbitrary arrests and harassment of community members by police is still common.

Substance Abuse

Doctors also blame the high level of substance abuse for the increase of mental illness within the Somali community. Khat, a mild stimulant, is commonly abused drug particularly by men in the Somali community. It’s cheaply available since it’s locally grown and doctors are warning that members of the community are over-using the drug.

Women Have it the Worst

In general, women, children and the elderly tend to be most affected by the mental illness problem. Dr Mohamed Hussein Ali, explains "the reason why women are most affected to be begin with is because their copping ability to traumatic situations is very low."

Secondly, it is increasingly becoming common within the Somali community for women to shoulder the responsibility of caring for the families which has exposed them to many challenges. He adds, "their level of education is low, hence they are vulnerable to abuse."

Abdia Hassan, a 34 year old mother of three children, has suffered serious post traumatic stress. In late January she lost her husband and two of her children when an artillery shell fell on her house in Mogadishu.

Scared and with few options left, she fled to Kenya. "It was difficult for me to cope with the life in Nairobi with no one to help me," she says. It was after she fell seriously ill that she visited the hospital. After the initial background and medical check-up, the doctor recommended counseling service for her.

Although, some of the patients improve after thorough counseling, in most cases it’s difficult for the Somali refugees to access such services and doctors are asking for the establishment of a counseling and rehabilitation centre for the urban refugees.

"The sooner we establish such a centre the better," says Dr. Abdikadir. He explains that there is a need for all the stakeholders to pull their resources together and avert a looming major health crisis.