International Youth Day event sheds light and hope on the state of youth mental health in Malawi

Pilirani, a member of Cayo Youth Club, listens as Thembi Thadzi from Farm Radio Trust talks about mental health issues facing youth in Malawi.

August 12 was International Youth Day, and a special seminar was held at the public affairs section of the U.S. Embassy in Malawi on the state of youth mental health. It was attended by approximately 50 youth keen to discuss issues facing youth in their country, including members of Cayo Youth Club, college students and representatives of youth organizations.

Thembi Thadzi, program assistant for the mental health program and a driving force behind its popular radio show, Nkhawa Njee — Yonse Bo (Chichewa for Depression Free, Life is Cool), was the afternoon’s main speaker. As she started to speak, the youth quietly put their mobile phones into their pockets to watch her click through her PowerPoint slides and tell the story of substance abuse and depression among young people in Malawi. The reality is stark. Youth suicide rates are on the rise and in July, said Thadzi, ten cases were reported in Ntchisi District (about 200 kilometers from Lilongwe) alone. She also stressed that the highest prevalence of mental health problems are found in Malawians aged 16 to 25 years old.

However, her presentation also included a strong message of hope, as she discussed the impact of early intervention and how radio is helping to raise awareness about youth mental health in the districts of Mchinji, Lilongwe and Salima in the country’s Central Region through a powerful new radio program.

Nkhawa Njee — Yonse Bo is an interactive radio program broadcast in Malawi by Zodiac Broadcasting Station, MBC’s Radio Two and Mudzi Wathu Community Radio Station. The program is sponsored by Farm Radio Trust in partnership with Farm Radio International, with financial support from Grand Challenges Canada. Farm Radio Trust runs 49 youth listening clubs through which youth meet twice a week to listen to the program and discuss the topic of the day. The clubs were given radios and mobile phones to encourage participation in the program and, after listening to Nkhawa Njee — Yonse Bo, participating youth share their thoughts and comments with broadcasters by texting and calling the station.

Thadzi told the youth that the in-school and out-of-school youth clubs and Facebook have created a safe space for youth to talk and that the role models featured on the radio program have been an inspiration to many. She shared how youth have been helped, citing the example of four youth who opted for voluntary HIV tests after speaking openly about their fears to the program’s facilitators.

Although Nkhawa Njee — Yonse Bo is widely popular with young people, counselling services are still not readily available to the youth. However, there are plans in place for more peer education and training for service providers so that they become “more open to youth’s problems.”

As Thadzi’s presentation came to a close, the youth immediately started raising their hands, eager to have their questions answered. The discussion was lively and as each question was answered more hands went up. The last topic discussed by youth was access to alcohol and the difficulty in trying to find alcohol-free spaces. The mantra heard throughout the room was “fight the alcohol and drug abuse.”

The young attendees stuck around after the presentation to carry on the conversation, discussing the future and what can be done to make it bright. One young man, Charles Jere, the leader of Cayo Youth Club, dressed in a stark white shirt with a bright red tie, stood talking to a small group of people. His message was clear. “As youth we are leaders, but if there is a leader who is depressed how can this person lead? We need to be free of depression so we can build a better Malawi.”

About the author  
Noreen Fagan is a freelance journalist based in Ottawa. She is also a Master’s student in Journalism at Carleton University. Noreen has spent her summer working with Farm Radio Trust in Malawi, documenting the organization’s agricultural and youth and mental health projects.

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