There are many amazing individuals in Malawi and Tanzania who have helped to de-stigmatize mental illness and ensure those suffering from mental illness have access to effective care. These are a few of those individuals we met as part of the “Integrated youth mental health” project.
Tamanda Roy Meja, the chair lady of her Nkhawa Njee listening group at Cayo Club, is honest about her past struggles with depression.
“At first when I was facing Nkhawa (depression) most of time I was putting myself in bad ways, I was maybe taking beer, thinking this is the best way that it can release me from Nkhawa.”
However, thanks to the radio program Nkhawa Njee — Yonse Bo (Depression free, life is cool) — airing on MBC Radio 2 in Malawi — she now knows how to best cope with depression, as well as how to support her friends facing similar difficulties.
“If some of my friends break up with their boyfriend, I tell them they should not lose their hope, they will find someone. To release that stress I tell them they should try to be closer to music or dance, or sometimes I call them to be with us here at Cayo so we can help them more.”
Tamanda’s improved understanding on mental health and personal story echoes that of many Malawian youth who have found the show to be a refuge of support and connection.
Sauda Abdalah, a bright 17-year old-student at Singisi Secondary School in Tanzania, is a devoted listener of Positive Mood on Radio Five and active member of the mental health club at her school.
Since the program launched at her school last December, she has never missed an episode.
“If I can’t listen on Friday, I listen on Sunday. At home, my parents know about my program because they know it’s my hobby, it’s everything to me. So when it’s Sunday, they always remind me to tune in. And when I get home from school they ask me about it. Even my parents want to know more about mental health.”
Sauda says teaching others about mental health is her favourite part of being in the mental health club at school.
“It makes me feel good to help new members understand. We talk about the problem, how to help people with symptoms, and where they can get more help and more information.”
Through Positive Mood, Sauda learned about the stigma surrounding mental illness, and that mental health is an issue that concerns everyone.
“I didn’t know about mental health before the program. I knew what I thought ‘crazy’ was, but when someone is angry, when they have sleeplessness, lack of appetite, and other symptoms of stress and depression, those things can happen to people who seem ‘normal.’ The program helped me understand that mental health is not about calling people ‘crazy,’ it’s about hundreds of different mental disorders.”
In the future, Sauda hopes to work with programs about mental health so that she can continue learning and teaching others about the issue.
“When I see someone with a mental illness who is stigmatized by society, it makes me want to help them. It makes me feel so bad to see people be stigmatized, so I want to bring those people close to me and get them support,” she says.
“I like when I learn more about mental illness. I wish to become a person who works in mental health and help create more programs. I want to teach more people in different communities.”
Ester Mshana is a teacher and facilitator of the mental health club at Akeri Secondary School in Tanzania. Her love of teaching and counselling students, combined with her background in biology, made her want to get involved in Farm Radio’s mental health project when it launched at her school a year and a half ago.
“I teach biology, so I’m aware of how the brain works in development, psychologically and socially. Adolescence is a time of change and can bring forward many mental health problems. As a biology teacher, it’s easy for me to understand.”
Ester says that while students come to her with difficult problems such as poverty at home and trouble paying school fees, opening the discussion around stress and depression has made a big difference for students and teachers.
“Students are aware of their mental health and how to overcome stress and problems at home. When they listen to Positive Mood (a radio show airing on Radio 5 in Arusha), it helps them understand many different problems and different ways to deal with them. . . . There’s never a direct solution, but we can give advice.”
Ester says that students coming together is the best way for youth to learn. “When we travel to neighbouring schools, we share ideas with other students. They listen to the [radio] program, dance together, play sports. It refreshes their minds and helps them be more comfortable and open about mental health.”
Having worked as a radio DJ for six years, Dickie Shumba, popularly known as The Diktator, knew the ins and outs of radio presentation, but like most Malawians, talking about mental health was something new.
Diktator, also a well-known Malawian rapper, was voted by the youth of Malawi to be part of Farm Radio International’s youth mental health initiative, which includes a radio show airing on MBC Radio 2.
“At first I was excited but I was also nervous, in that I didn’t know anything about mental health. I didn’t even know it was a problem. I thought, ‘Okay I’ve been put on this show, what will I be saying?’ ”
Like the youth who listen to his half hour radio show, Nkhawa Njee — Yonse Bo (Depression free, life is cool), Diktator is being challenged to rethink depression and break down stigmas.
“We’re learning a lot, we’re still in the process of learning,” he says, adding that it’s one aspect of working on the show that he enjoys.
The passion and enthusiasm that Diktator has brought to the show has made it the most popular youth program in the country and made learning about mental health entertaining. “The way I present Nkhawa Njee is totally different than another program because I am always hyped up. It’s for young people, so I have to be a young person as well.”
Although Joy Nathu, a presenter and producer at MBC Radio 2, had worked on youth radio programs before, being selected as the producer for Nkhawa Njee — Yonse Bo (Depression free, life is cool) meant he had to find a way to showcase and educate young people on mental health.
In Malawi, personal difficulties are rarely talked about, making mental health a complex issue. Joy was therefore faced with the challenge of trying to arrange a fun, dynamic radio show, but also one that would create an impact on the lives of youth.
“[The program] has helped me grow and made me discover the type of person I am in the sense that, right now I can say that I can take on any challenge because at first I didn’t think I’d be able to handle anything about mental illness.”
Scriptwriting and mixing together the show, Joy has helped define the program as a creative blend of entertainment and educational messages on mental health.
“I’m really excited, even up to now, to be working on this program because it’s like my baby, seeing it grow to the point it’s reached is really an amazing feeling.”
But he believes there’s still room for the program to develop and hopes it will continue to reach more and more people. “We’ve made Malawians open up, and start talking about depression amongst themselves, even to parents and teachers. But I’m sure that we can still do so much and many open up a few more doors in terms of depression.”
Shehesom Shebsom, a clinical officer at Mt. Meru Regional Hospital in northern Tanzania, sees the struggle youth with depression go through every day. After receiving training from Farm Radio International last year, he is now able to recognize mental illness and help his patients better understand it themselves.
“It helped me to know how to diagnose patients, particularly adolescents, suffering from depression. I’m comfortable making that diagnosis. . . . I have learned so much from the training. I feel happy to treat them and see the patients improving.”
Shehesom has seen big changes in the stigma around mental illness since the program began. He has treated three patients for depression and says they are slowly showing signs of improvement.
“Before the training, there was a stigma, even here. After receiving training, we are able to explain the illness to parents and give them advice. This program is making it easier for clinicians to diagnose depression in adolescents, and teaching them how to manage it and follow up with patients.”
He says the program is a good introduction to mental health issues for youth, parents, teachers and health workers in the region, and hopes this new level of awareness will spread throughout the country.
Malumbo Saviour Jere was familiar with educating youth about history and geography, however, teaching mental health was a learning experience for him as much as it was for his students.
Selected as a patron for the Nkhawa Njee club at Chigoneka Community Day Secondary School, Malumbo was tasked with helping bring about an awareness and understanding of mental illnesses. He says the training he received from Farm Radio International and the weekly radio program reset not only his mindset about mental health, but that of all the teachers at the school.
“Previously students were excluded from school for deviant behaviour just because teachers did not know the problem students were facing,” says Malumbo. Now, he explains, they are able to search for the underlying problems, monitor the students and find them help, rather than simply dismissing them.
Removing the deeply engrained stigma surrounding depression is one of the most important lessons Malumbo encourages his students to practice.
“Now people are able to understand that those who are mentally ill are also our friends and they have to be treated as human beings.”
Read more profiles of the amazing people involved in the “Integrated youth mental health project.” Or learn more about this project in the documentary “Mental Health on Air.”