Things that make me happy include a hot cup of tea on a rainy Vancouver Sunday morning, a day out with my friends at Stanley Park, or even a simple walk along Kitsilano beach. Having immigrated to Canada in 2019 to pursue higher education in psychology, I’m thankful for these simple pleasures and the mental health benefits they provide. Unfortunately, this reality is not a luxury everyone can afford. While Canada ranked 15th out of 150 countries in the 2022 World Happiness Report (WHR), Kenya sits at 119th, reminding me of a humbling trip I took to Total Rehab Centre for Disabled Children when I was visiting for summer holidays. It was there I witnessed firsthand the causes and outcomes of this low ranking.
The first thing I noticed upon entering the orphanage was the smell; it was pungent and desperate, but not more so than the fifty-six children sprawled across the 500 square-foot house. Most of them couldn’t walk on their own; some were wheelchair bound. A lot of them couldn’t speak, either. At the time I was working as a behavioral interventionist (BI) in Canada, where I’d implement individualized intervention plans targeting special behaviors to achieve social and communicative goals in children with developmental disorders. I realized that if even a handful of BI’s worked with these children they’d have at least a fighting chance. In reality, most grow up forever wheelchair bound, social pariahs in a sea of poverty.
The people who worked there, although fortunate enough to have a space to care for these children, were exhausted. I sensed an overwhelming hopelessness from founder Teresia Njeru. She cared for these children deeply and it showed in their faces anytime she walked into a room. Unfortunately, she insisted that the workload does take a toll and insisted that the work she does “is about self-sacrifice. For these children to survive I must work hard.”
Two stories in particular stayed with me. The youngest child, four-year-old Isaiah, was placed in the orphanage’s care in 2019 when he was found at a local police station in the capital city of Nairobi. Left there by his mother due to his unusual appearance, fortunately he was rescued by the police and treated at Kenyatta Hospital, where he was later found by Teresia and brought to what can only be called a safe haven. Isaiah was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and was delayed developmentally.
In another case, Caroline Duta, 29 years old when I visited, was orphaned as a child when her parents died. She was raised by extended family and then left on the streets of Nairobi to fend for herself. Like many intellectually disabled women living in those circumstances, Caroline was sexually assaulted. Found pregnant on the side of the road by a good Samaritan, she was brought into Kenyatta hospital where Teresia once again came to the rescue.
Teresia says it’s challenging to run the centre because there’s no help from government. Officials infrequently provide food, but not financial support. The reality, as Teresia shares, is that “you have to buy therapists… you have to pay” implying that most special-needs and mental health facilities or charities are “run by individuals.”
What makes a country happy?
What makes one country happier than another? The WHR uses indicators based on individual assessments that are then averaged to give an overall estimate of a country’s position or ranking. The six key variables include GDP per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, freedom to make life choices, generosity, and freedom from corruption.
The consensus here is that if a country scores high on these factors, it’s happiness ranking will likely be higher than that of a country that scores significantly lower. The reality for most eastern countries is that factors such as social support and having a sense of freedom to make life choices are low, meaning that for sub-Saharan and Latinx countries their WHR rankings will stay in the lower range.
Why is Canada happier than Kenya?
Canada’s ranking has dropped over the last number of years from top-five to 15th, but still there are several reasons why its ranking is well above other countries. Some key reasons include being progressive, having targeted public policies, and emphasizing the use of psychology and psychologists to ensure an individual’s well-being.
In Canada, governments recognize that people with mental health challenges are valued members of society and must be treated as such. For example, there are several government-funded youth mental health services offered nationally, provincially, and locally that promote recovery and well-being for those who are either mentally challenged or ill.
In Kenya, on the other hand, research shows there’s a lack of mental health literacy, programming, and funding. Adolescents there are often left underrepresented, undertreated, and undiagnosed, which has a severe effect on the overall well-being of the country. Coupled with brain drain, where talented professionals seek employment in foreign lands, and NGO’s or private practices offer better compensation, this leaves little to no health professionals in the public sector to work at improving community mental health.
Why the sinking feeling?
There is a solemn reality that many immigrants face when they travel halfway across the globe in pursuit of a better life and realize there is a whole world they left behind; a world that still desperately needs them.
The sinking feeling you get when you take the train to class and realize the compartment you’re sitting in is bigger than an orphanage back home holding fifty-six mentally disabled children. Or when you walk along Main Street and are reminded of all the homeless people with mental health and addiction issues, who cannot find sanctuary because African governments refuse to acknowledge the severity and impacts of mental illness on individuals, families, workplaces, and communities.
It is bittersweet when the only thing keeping you in a foreign land is the people you envision helping back home, the children cast out by their families because they think autism is a curse or that their children are possessed by the devil. The defeat you feel when you see therapy ads and crisis line pamphlets scattered on Vancouver streets, but know there’s not a single mental health institution for miles in the capital city of Kenya.
Or when you know your neighbor with schizophrenia back home who walks barefoot every day in the hot sun, will be brutalized by the police because they don’t know any better. It’s a sick feeling, a despairing one that ravages the deepest parts of my mind sometimes, knowing that I have been placed directly in the middle of a solution that is tangible but never quite reachable.
When I see the privilege and comfort in Canada ─ advanced infrastructure and technology, first-world healthcare and transportation systems, opportunities for education about mental health ─ I can’t help but conclude that Kenya’s happiness rating would be higher if it had even half of what Canada has. Yes, colonization and corrupt and power-hungry leaders have caused economic disparity that minimizes happiness and stigmatizes the mentally ill, but my question is, what can we do about it now?
What will drive positive change?
Steps can be taken, and we can learn from each other. Economists suggest that if nations such as Kenya build and fund facilities to accommodate the mentally ill, happiness levels should rise. It’s also thought that less corrupt and more trusted governments will better meet their citizens’ basic health needs. If leaders make the necessary sacrifices, this can mean the start of greater prosperity in all African nations with higher happiness rankings.
How can I be a part of the solution?
I’ve worked in the mental health sector here in Canada for more than two years, learning and growing from mentoring and teaching children suffering from various mental illnesses. Yes, at times I feel helpless, but I’m using my time in Canada to acquire knowledge I can carry with me overseas to shed light on various mental health challenges there. I have hope in my ability to mobilize change.
Chrissie Ngarachu is a psychology student at Simon Fraser University who hopes to inspire real change within the African diaspora regarding mental health and well-being.