Bhang or cannabis abuse is the greatest reason school-age children are being referred for specialized mental care at Kenyatta National Hospital.
Bhang by far, followed by alcohol, tobacco, stimulants and cocaine are the main drugs having children aged from 10-18 referred for mental treatment at the facility.
In a day, Tuesday 10th, when Kenya was commemorating the world Mental Health Day it also emerged that drug abuse has become a major cause of mental illness among school-age children.
The Director of Medical Services Dr Jackson Kioko, led the celebrations at Gilgil Hospital in Nakuru County; this year zeroing in on mental health at the work place.
But a recent study at the specialist mental health clinic of Kenyatta hospital warns over the destructive role recreation drugs are playing with the minds of adolescents.
In the study appearing in the journal Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, researchers from the University of Nairobi and the University of Ibadan Nigeria studied 166 mental health patients aged 2-18 years attending KNH’s specialist clinic.
“Substance use disorders related to cannabis use were the most common psychiatry diagnosis followed by major depression,” says the study.
Out of the 166 children, 24 were being treated for cannabis abuse and dependence, 23 for major depression, 23 for suicide disorders (suicidality), 21 for autism and 20 for attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or ADHD.
These were the leading causes of mental disorders out of the 28 conditions the 166 children were being treated for at the facility.
Twenty three of the children and adolescents in the study reported experiencing suicidal ideas, while about four per cent reported having attempted suicide at least once. Suicidal respondents were most likely over 10 years and most of them girls compared to boys.
In children aged below 10, autism was the highest disorder, followed by intellectual disability, ADHD, physical disability and anxiety in that order.
In all ages boys were more than girls but the later seemed to increase significantly as females entered into adolescence.
The authors, led by Judy Wanjiru Kamau of the Psychiatry Department University of Nairobi say more girls are likely to succumb to depression at around 13 years resulting to increased proportion of females in mental health facilities.
“More female participants, 16, had depression compared to seven boys while 28 males had a substance abuse problem compared to only five girls.” In both genders substance abusers were aged above 10 years.
More than 90 per cent of the study participants were attending either mainstream or special school. However 17 of the children and adolescents were not in school for various reasons.
These included dropping outs, being expelled, mental disability while five were not yet of school going age. The study shows a high representation, more than a quarter, of children from single parent households.
The study also shows a long process before suffering patients can be referred to the specialist facility taking up to 15 years.
“The longest time taken between onset of symptoms and finally reaching the child and adolescent mental health clinics was 183 months or 15.25 years.”
Most of the patients, 57 had been referred to the KNH clinic by a medical practitioners while more than a quarter had been referred by teachers.
The researchers are recommending more attention be given to school based substance abuse control programmes with capacity to quickly refer serious cases for specialist attention.