From the Field

Young voices lead chorus of change in Nairobi

What challenges do young people face regarding mental health? What should be the key areas to address on this issue? What support are they seeking? In Kenya, the citiesRISE team took the questions to the very people they concern.

“It’s exciting to be in the room which will be the future of mental health,” said a young voice from Nairobi. In the extremely animated session, which included discussions and skits, we also heard vital answers to questions like:  

  • What does it mean to be a youth leader?
  • What skills do young leaders want and need – and what barriers do they face?
  • What are focused solutions around technology, stigma, access to care, and data?

“Young people are not involved in stakeholder meetings that supposedly serve young people,” says Joyce Kingori, who is the program manager of BasicNeeds, which is partnering citiesRISE in Kenya. There are many passionate and innovative young people and groups working on mental health in Nairobi and other cities in the country. Their voices are rarely heard and have NEVER been heard as one. The youth symposium on August 1, 2017 brought them together in one room for the first time to hear their perspective, and carry the kernel to the still-evolving Local Collective on mental health.

Youth leader Sitawa Wafula attended the session with some practical tips for young leaders on how to make headway in a space that is huge but neglected (see separate report). Recognized as one of the top 50 global champions of the issue, Sitawa helped the participants in making the interactive sessions creative and meaningful.

Anchored by citiesRISE’s Youth Program Manager, Lian Zeitz, the symposium was the second stop for the effort’s journey in Kenya. In April, citiesRISE hosted a workshop at Kenyatta University, Nairobi. The workshop was designed to have young people engage in safe and constructive dialogue on mental health and to identify the most pressing problems in their lives. More than 25 participants attended the August workshop. They were some of the applicants of the call for the citiesRISE Youth Challenge Award.

Moitreyee Sinha, the CEO of citiesRISE, urged the need to go beyond mental health and connect all of the sectors, communities, and areas of work for a powerful collective movement. Currently in Nairobi, mental health is not being recognized as one of the top policies and she hoped that citiesRISE would bring together global expertise and best models to connect local actions.

Lian, who feels that it’s very important to support young people working in mental health, said that the feedback from the session would help the initiative strengthen its design and outcomes. “The youth define its own goals and outcomes and we must include young people with lived expertise,” he said. “We encourage experimentation, and we need partnerships that do this. Young people cannot do this alone. Youth partners are the safety net – and we value the collective effort over your siloed efforts.”

Typically, people suffer from mental health issues for 10 years before seeking help. Many of the participants, other than Sitawa, came with personal stories and shared the passion to see the issue taken up on urgently and by all sectors of the society.

Stigma and lack of information and support emerged as two of the biggest challenges facing the youth of Kenya. Samual Taalam, a young and enthusiastic leader from the campus-based organization Amazing Minds, believes a mental health program in local schools and universities can help handle the rising problem of mental health among students. His group uses various art forms to reach students, and have been successful in sparking conversations about mental health among teachers and students.

To highlight some of the phrases that came up during the workshop:

  • Culture of silence
  • Lack of effective human connection
  • Rise of suicide
  • Not a priority of the government
  • Not enough care centers
  • Education and demystification
  • Economic constraints

When asked what it means to be a youth leader and what was lacking in them, the responses were fast and diverse.

How the young leaders define themselves

All of them agreed that they needed to build their skills as young leaders wanting to impact work in mental health — ranging from interpersonal to fundraising. But what has been preventing them from achieving the skills they need and want? Lack of resources, support and guidance emerged as some of the key factors.

Speaking to officials from the Kenya Ministry of Health the next day, the citiesRISE team outlined their initiative strategy and discussed the current work in Kenya as well as updated the group on outcomes of the April gathering which hinged on the alignment that young people were a priority for the Ministry of Health, the Nairobi Collective Action and citiesRISE.

Catherine Mutisya, who is a Consultant Psychiatrist and Family coach in the Ministry of Health Mental Health Unit, a strategy action plan that is being developed includes focus on vulnerable groups and young people. Advocacy is a key piece way forward with plans of setting up a consortium of NGOs. The action plan also includes supporting life skills for young people, substance abuse prevention, parenting, and promoting mental health of young people. Increased funding for mental health initiatives, from <1% to at least 5% through UHC and the national insurance fund is also under consideration. Samuel G. Giogora from the Ministry of Health Community Health Development Unit expressed interest in bringing mental health services to the “first level.”

Participants eager to express their points through skits (top) and gave a thumbs up to the collective taking shape in Kenya.