Attributions and private theories of mental illness among young adults seeking psychiatric treatment in Nairobi: An interpretive phenomenological analysis

Judy Wanjiru Mbuthia, Manasi Kumar, Fredrik Falkenström, Mary Wangari Kuria, Caleb Joseph Othieno

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

8 Citations (Scopus)


Background: Mental illness affects every segment of population including young adults. The beliefs held by young patients regarding the causes of mental illness impact their treatment-seeking behaviour. It is pertinent to know the commonly held attributions around mental illness so as to effectively provide psychological care, especially in a resource constrained context such as Kenya. This helps in targeting services around issues such as stigma and extending youth-friendly services. Methods: Guided by the private theories interview (PTI-P) and attributional framework, individual semi-structured interviews were carried out with ten young adults of ages 18-25 years about their mental health condition for which they were undergoing treatment. Each interview took 30-45 min. We mapped four attributions (locus of control, stability, controllability and stigma) on PTI-P questions. Data was transcribed verbatim to produce transcripts coded using interpretive phenomenological analysis. These codes were then broken down into categories that could be used to understand various attributions. Results: We found PTI-P to be a useful tool and it elicited three key themes: (a) psychosocial triggers of distress (with themes of negative thoughts, emotions around mental health stigma and negative childhood experiences, parents' separation or divorce, death of a loved one etc.), (b) biological conditions and psychopathologies limiting intervention, and (c) preferences and views on treatment. Mapping these themes on our attributional framework, PTI-P themes presented as causal attributions explaining stigma, locus of control dimensions and stability. External factors were mainly ascribed to be the cause of unstable and uncontrollable attributions including persistent negative emotions and thoughts further exacerbating psychological distress. Nine out of the ten participants expressed the need for more intense and supportive therapy. Conclusion: Our study has provided some experiential evidence in understanding how stigma, internal vs external locus of control, stability vs instability attributions play a role in shaping attitudes young people have towards their mental health. Our study points to psychosocial challenges such as stigma, poverty and lack of social support that continue to undermine mental well-being of Kenyan youth. These factors need to be considered when addressing mental health needs of young people in Kenya.

Original languageEnglish
Article number28
JournalChild and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 1 Jun 2018
Externally publishedYes


  • Attributions of mental illness
  • Locus of control
  • Private theories interview
  • Stigma
  • Youth in psychiatric facilities


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