Dr. Winnie Kitetu
Dr. Winnie Kitetu is the Clinical Psychologist in Residence at the Aga Khan Hospital, Mombasa, Kenya. Dr. Kitetu began her career as a pharmacist, and as her interest in mental health developed, she returned to university to study Clinical Psychology.
The COVID-19 pandemic and measures imposed to curb the spread of the disease have had a significant impact on mental health, prompted by bereavement, loneliness, substance abuse, and domestic violence etc. Dr. Kitetu is using her expertise to support women and families during the pandemic with remote counseling via phone or video. She offers guidance on dealing with domestic abuse, parenting through the pandemic, and keeping loneliness at bay during lockdown orders.
We spoke with Dr. Kitetu about her work helping others cope with COVID-19’s psychological impacts, as well as about her own journey and how she maintains her balance and positive outlook, as part of our “Spotlight a COVID-19 Heroine” series.
Read our interview with Dr. Kitetu below.
Q: Could you please introduce yourself, and talk us through your background, your career journey, and what led you to pursue clinical psychology as your profession?
I began my career as a pharmacist and spent the first five years working in the casualty department at one of Kenya’s busiest national referral hospitals. Patients would come to the window to receive their medication, and I would see people receiving repeat prescriptions for ailments such as ulcers, or sleeping medication, but they weren’t aware of the underlying psychological issues that could also be causing their ailments. That’s what inspired me to go back to school in 2005 to take a course in Psychology. After completing that course, I wanted to know more, so while I was still working, I also studied for an MSc in clinical psychology which I completed in 2009.
When my father passed away, I found things really hard for a while and had to step away from work. It was shortly thereafter that I began my career as a consultant in Clinical Psychology, working in various hospitals. In 2013, I took a short break from my medical career and tried to make my way in politics—I ran as Women’s Representative for Kitui County in the 2013 elections, on a platform that aimed to help women and youth, in particular. I came second in the general election, so afterwards I returned to working as a Clinical Psychologist. I then began my PhD program and became a Clinical Psychologist resident at the Aga Khan Hospital, Mombasa in Kenya.
Q: Could you briefly describe the importance of mental health, and what role it plays in one’s overall health and wellbeing?
There is no health without mental health. It encompasses emotional, psychological, and social wellbeing, and it drives how we think, how we feel, and how we behave. If we can have the right mental attitude it helps us deal with daily pressures, have more positive relationships, be more productive in life, and beat our stresses. Good mental health also brings courage and compassion—it allows you to connect, think, and behave in the right way.
Q: This year, we have all become familiar with many of the physical symptoms associated with COVID-19, but could you explain some of the ways in which the virus is also impacting mental health? Have there been aspects of the pandemic that have given rise to particular mental health concerns?
When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in Kenya, the hospital where I work knew they would need my services. Right away, there was a lot of concern in the hospital and the wider community about what was happening with lockdowns, and how this was going to affect people’s mental health—businesses were being told to close and people were told to stay at home.
I began by connecting with different groups of people in the community through tele-consultations, helping them understand the actions they needed to take to stay well and to survive, and how to deal with children being at home. My main focus at the hospital shifted to helping staff—the doctors and the nurses—cope with the pandemic. The main psychological issue that the pandemic was causing among staff was bereavement—dealing with loss and grief and stigma. My role involved helping equip staff to deal with bereaved relatives of patients, and also helping staff deal with their own anxieties. Additionally, I produced videos so that people could understand what was happening to their mental health during this time, and how they could best deal with their emotional, physical, and cognitive symptoms.
Another effect the pandemic has had is that it has acted as a trigger for people with underlying mental health issues. This has led to my involvement in addiction counseling for example, because substance use and abuse increased during the period of lockdowns, and helping people deal with symptoms like insomnia, which were being triggered by their anxiety. The pandemic’s mental toll has also extended to children—some are experiencing forms of night terrors, which is an additional source of stress for parents, particularly when there is so much misinformation on the internet about their cause.
Overall, I see my role as being able to intervene in the community in order to help people better understand what our brains are going through at this time. It affects people in different ways, from hospital staff who need to keep working when a patient dies, to educators and parents who need guidance on supporting children, to corporate clients who need help with bereavement when a colleague passes away due to COVID-19.
Q: You must have faced incredible challenges working as a medical professional throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. How have you been managing to look after your own mental wellbeing?
I have not always found things easy during the pandemic. The lockdowns made me feel lonely, especially as I was in another county away from my family–my husband is currently in Nairobi, and my children work internationally. But we scheduled regular time to connect each weekend via Zoom, which really helped.
The other thing that has helped me is intentional or deliberate living—I choose to remain connected with people and keep a focus on my own goals. I also set boundaries about when I answer calls from my patients, who sometimes call for counseling outside of working hours, including weekends. Finally, I also make time for 30 minutes of exercise every morning.
It is also good to set an ‘attitude of gratitude,’ and finding positivity where you can; I found it through maintaining my faith, and also connecting with younger women in the community, with whom I could laugh and share stories, which helped keep my spirits up.
Q: From a mental health perspective, have you seen COVID-19 impacting women and men in Kenya differently?
Women suffer from a range of gender-specific mental health problems in normal times, including post-partum depression. During the COVID-19 pandemic, unfortunately, more women have been affected by intimate partner violence and there have been lots of breakdowns of relationships. What has also affected women, in particular, is that many have been forced to isolate on their own and subsequently realized that there was an opportunity to live life without being in an abusive relationship. So, I have been offering guidance on how to permanently leave abusive situations.
I’ve also noticed that more men than women have died during the pandemic—perhaps due to their lifestyle, as more men smoke or drink alcohol—or maybe even a genetic predisposition. With regards to men’s mental health, men often take losing their employment very hard; and loss of employment and income has been something that has happened a lot during the pandemic. This can really affect a person’s willpower and self-esteem. This has been magnified during the quarantine period—a sense of quarantine fatigue that can also lead to substance abuse and domestic violence. So, while the pandemic has been affecting men and women differently, the effects are still often intertwined.
Q: In addition to your role as Clinical Psychologist in Residence at the Aga Khan Hospital, Mombasa, you are also a PhD holder, a businesswoman, a mother of three, and you have even been involved in local politics. What advice do you have for other African women who are on their leadership journeys? Do you have any insight to share on achieving success, staying motivated, and maintaining balance?
It is important to build contingencies as a woman—to always have an alternative plan. I would also advise women to try and walk hand-in-hand with their families as they pursue their ambitions. It is more rewarding to bring them with you and celebrate success together, rather than alone.
I also encourage women to push themselves beyond their comfort zone and go out and network; by doing so it’s possible that you will meet a mentor who can help you build your ambitions even further. And you must be visible, stay positive, and maintain that ‘attitude of gratitude.’ Doing so will help you to increase your self-esteem and reduce fear.
While it is important to retain a sense of humility, it is equally important to let go of imposter syndrome. It’s something I suffered with myself and have struggled to overcome. And, finally, women must also face up to and push away any sense of shame. Success can be found when you embrace your imperfections and vulnerabilities.
Q: Do you have any advice to women, in Kenya and beyond, for taking care of their own mental health?
It is important to build and maintain habits of self-care, and also make sure to attend medical examinations every year; don’t let small problems become bigger ones. I would also recommend joining online social or community groups if you can—it is too easy to be lonely at the moment, and it is important to connect with other people. And I love listening to music and other times watch comedy and laugh, laugh, laugh. Even when things aren’t going well, you can always work at improving your mental health.