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Deaths of three Kenyan athletes puts focus on mental health and gender-based violence

The late 25 year old Agnes Jebet Tirop, a 10km road race world record holder who died from suspected homicide by marcoverch is licensed under CC BY 2.0

The late 25-year-old Agnes Jebet Tirop, a 10K world-record holder who died from suspected homicide. This image by marcoverch is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Content notice: This article contains mention of suicide and domestic violence, which might be disturbing to some readers.

In October 2021, Kenya lost three of its top track athletes to suicide and homicide. This tragedy exposed the dark underbelly of the sport in a country where the plight of athletes grappling with mental health, gender-based violence, and economic disempowerment are adding to already growing violence rates.

On Saturday, October 9, triple cross-country winner Hosea Macharinyang, 35, was found dead in his home in West Pokot, Kenya, in a case of suspected suicide. Macharinyang hailed from the Rift Valley region of Kenya, famous for producing most of Kenya's top athletes. Four days later, on October 1, 25-year-old Agnes Tirop, a 10-kilometer world record holder from the same area, was found dead in her house in a suspected homicide. Less than two days later, another female athlete Edith Muthoni was killed in a case of domestic violence in Embu, Central Kenya.

The late Agnes Tirop had recently broken the world record for the women's only 10km race. She started out as a cross-country runner and became the second-youngest winner (after South Africa's Zola Budd) of the World Athletes Cross-Country championships in 2015 and 2016. She represented Kenya in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics Games, barely missing out on the medal bracket after finishing fourth in the 5,000m women's race.

On Twitter, tributes for Agnes Tirop poured in as many expressed shock and sadness at her sudden demise, using the hashtag #RIPAgnesTirop.

The World Athletics body shared a message of condolences with family and friends on its Twitter page:

Athletics Kenya (AK), the national federation for athletics in Kenya, expressed condolences through its Twitter account on October 13:

Gender-based violence

In the wake of Agnes Tirop and Edith Muthoni's deaths, many emphasized the need to address gender-based violence, which has increased sharply since last year. Citizens have been using the hashtags #FeministConversationsKe and #StopGBVKenya to raise awareness and express outrage about gender-based violence in the nation.

Human Rights Watch released a report on gender-based violence in September 2021, showing a staggering 301 percent increase in reported violence against women and girls in Kenya in just the first two weeks of the COVID-19 lockdown between March and April 2020.

According to the report, many of the abuses happened “in the home,” and those involved were usually “close family members including husbands, but other abuses happened in the communities perpetuated by neighbours.”

In the report, the HRW accused the Kenyan government of negligence as their policies were “inadequate to respond effectively to violence against women and girls.” They also noted the link between health emergencies and increased violence, saying the government should have “expected and planned for a similar uptick during the COVID-19 health emergency.” They called on the government to “prevent, tackle, and redress” violence against women and girls, including during times of crisis, as has been the case with the COVID-19 pandemic.

Mental health among Kenyan athletes

Kenyan Long Distance Runners during the 2016 July Gold Coast Marathon by Angel Lite Photography is marked with CC PDM 1.0

Kenyan Long Distance Runners during the 2016 July Gold Coast Marathon by Angel Lite Photography is licensed under CC PDM 1.0

In addition to GBV, mental health and depression were brought back to the fore in the Kenyan sports scene last week. Mental health is often sidelined in sports as athletes are expected to excel despite injury or personal situations — and often face extreme pressure if they don't.

The careers and subsequent deaths of these three young athletes are believed to have been exacerbated by the reeling effects of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Sports have been halted in Kenya for over one year, leaving athletes who wholly rely on running in a very precarious position both financially and mentally.

Addressing Kenyan media in April this year, Athletics Kenya Executive member Barnabas Korir revealed that Kenya had lost close to 5 billion Kenyan shillings (nearly 45 million US dollars) in revenue since March 2020 due to the disruptions caused by COVID-19.

Athletes and sports personalities have openly struggled as they face stalling careers plus typical socio-economic issues like marital woes, parenting challenges, and bereavement.

Barnabas Korir, a former athlete and Athletics Kenya official from Nairobi, indicated that athletes can't perform well when they are not in the right state of mind. Some athletes eventually sink into depression and even turn to alcohol and illegal drug use after retirement due to idleness after many years characterized by busy schedules and demands, he continued. 

World Mental Health Day

October 10 was World Mental Health Day. This year's theme was “Mental Health in an Unequal World,” focusing on the widening health, economic, and social inequalities in the world.

Mental health has become a grave concern in Kenya. The World Health Organization notes the country has the fourth-highest number of depressed people in Africa, with at least 1.9 million people struggling with some form of depression. Just between March and June 2021, Kenya has reported 411 suicide, compared to 196 cases in 2019. 

In light of these deaths, Athletics Kenya postponed its activities scheduled for October 16 and 23 in honor of the departed athletes. In a press statement, the athletics body said:

We cannot hide our heads in the sand anymore; these unfortunate incidents are products of mental anguish afflicting various sports persons. A number of athletes are suffering immensely in their personal spaces but have chosen not to seek help for fear of stigma by society

The national athletics body called for more attention to the sports industry to reach out and help sportspersons. Athletics Kenya is planning a workshop in December to identify causes of mental health and create a multi-pronged approach to solutions with the Sports Ministry Taskforce on Mental Health.

In light of the demise of the three athletes, Kenya's sports governing body Athletics Kenya this week announced plans for a workshop in early December to identify the causes of mental health issues among athletes and how to resolve them. Jack Tuwei, AK president, said:

Athletes will be invited for candid sessions to identify these issues affecting them with a view to formulating solutions to the same. Considering that these challenges are unique to female and male athletes, there will be separate sessions for the two genders.

The number one cause of suicide is untreated depression. Depression is treatable and suicide is preventable. You can get help from confidential support lines for the suicidal and those in emotional crisis. Visit Befrienders.org to find a suicide prevention helpline in your country.

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