There are many amazing individuals in Malawi and Tanzania who have helped to destigmatize 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.
Dr. Lucy B. Kaaya has worked at the Mt. Meru Regional Hospital in Tanzania for 36 years. Now, in her new role as district mental health coordinator, Dr. Lucy B. Kaaya is able to treat her patients more effectively thanks to training she and other hospital staff received from Farm Radio International and TeenMentalHealth.org.
“The training was very helpful. I have over 1,000 patients come to this clinic. Clinic officers have been trained on how to treat these patients, so it is manageable now,” she says, adding that many patients are young people.
“I have seen a lot of improvement. At the beginning, we didn’t bother about teenagers with depression. But after the training, we saw that it is a problem for them. They are depressed, they don’t attend to school, they have bad behaviour. After the training, we found that these can be symptoms of untreated depression. After treating them, they are okay.”
Dr. Lucy B. Kaaya began her career as a midwife before studying psychology in university. She says that although adolescent depression is a problem in Tanzania, many members of the community are uninformed about the issue.
“They are aware of behaviour change, but they don’t want to talk [about mental illness]. We are involving the relatives of teenagers who are treated by us and tell them this is not just behaviour, this is a disease. It is a mental disease. So, they believe us, because after taking the medication they see that the patient is improving.”
Dr. Lucy B. Kaaya says that although the community can be resistant to change, she is seeing improved awareness around mental health.
Maureen Goodluck, 16, listens to the radio show Positive Mood with her classmates at Akeri Secondary School in Tanzania. As Head Girl and a member of the school’s mental health club, Maureen knows the pressure of stress and the importance of supporting other students.
Now that she has learned about depression and other mental illnesses through the Radio 5 program, she says she feels better prepared to recognize symptoms and help her peers.
“They will see that I am with them and that they are not alone. I will tell them that they have support and they can rely on others to help them.”
Maureen says the show’s interesting topics and fun music keep students tuning in every week. Today’s episode is about the risks of having multiple sexual partners. Bahati, the show’s weekly drama, follows the story of a girl who becomes depressed after discovering that she is pregnant. Through comedy, drama, music, and singing, students at the school were able to laugh and open up a discussion about the mature subject matter.
“Through the comedy, we learned about some health risks of having multiple sexual partners, and to not always trust a new partner,” says Maureen.
She says that she will continue listening to the program, and hopes to keep discussing mental health with students and others in the community.
Lucious Zimba, a teacher at Lilongwe Girls Secondary School in Malawi, has always had a passion for counselling and providing youth with guidance, making him a perfect fit as the facilitator of the school’s Nkhawa Njee (Depression Free) listening club.
From the training provided as part of the “Integrated youth mental health” project, Lucious is able to clearly identify students who are battling mental health issues. He has successfully encouraged many girls to open up and overcome their problems.
Lucious says he has seen a great change amongst the whole society of Lilongwe girls.
“Initially, students were coming to me but now they first go to the girls of the club and if they fail to resolve a situation, then they come to me.”
Three years ago, during the start of the radio program, Lucious says he would meet 10 to 15 girls a month who had critical problems. Now, he only encounters one or two.
The radio program and training has also had an impact on his own life.
“Nkhawa Njee has helped me interact with a lot of people. It has helped me talk to older people because some of the problems they have are Depression and stress, as stress is not only for the youth, it’s for everyone.”
A hard working student in her last year at Lilongwe Girls Secondary School in Malawi, Tadala Khonje hopes to eventually become a psychologist. As a peer educator in her school’s Nkhawa Njee (Depression free) club, Tadala has already been assisting her classmates who struggle with stress and depression.
“I play the role of teaching other fellow students on depression and helping them better understand depression and why it’s being talked about and how to effectively work towards eliminating it in the school.”
Her participation in the group has not only encouraged her to pursue a career in the health care field but also changed her perspective on mental health.
“I really enjoyed learning more about depression because I never really took depression as being one of the key aspects of my life as a youth. I never took it as a problem with adolescence or a crisis in my society . . . learning about it has been very exciting.”
The program has strengthened Tadala’s relationship with her twin sister, Chisomo, as well. Together they’ve been able to help each other when juggling the stresses of school, home and work.
Pilirani Masaiti, the vice-chair of Kawale Youth Club (KYC) at her school in Tanzania, was excited when Farm Radio approached her and proposed instructing her about mental health, so that she may help integrate it into her club.
“It was interesting to us that we as leaders would be able to tell our fellow youth more about mental health.”
The out-of-school club introduced games, music and drama, to complement what they’ve learned about how to cope with depression. But Pilirani says that it is the lessons about mental illness that has made the club stand out.
“Other clubs just do dancing or such, but the information about mental health is not there. So the coming in of mental health has made our club unique.”
Besides getting the opportunity to learn about mental health, many young people seek to become part of clubs such as Kawale because of the participatory youth-centred radio program Nkhawa Njee – Yonse Bo (Depression free, life is cool).
“Many of the youth are being attracted by the radio programs since [the broadcasters] come to our clubs interviewing us and airing us on the radio. When our fellow youth out there hear us on the radio they will be excited, and also wanted to be heard on the radio.”
Senara Elibariki, the mental health facilitator at Maji ya Chai Secondary School in Tanzania, knows that mental wellness is a lifelong journey.
Specializing in special needs education and psychology, he initially got involved in the “Integrated youth mental health” project in order to use his experience to help students, and to continue learning about mental health himself.
“I wanted to be involved in this program not only to give education to others, but also to help me. Because I am a human being, I’m still living. I can encounter problems within myself, or my family, or the community,” he says. “With my background, it is easy for me to help them. That’s why I’m interested to work with them, we learn together.”
He has been teaching at Maji ya Chai, located in the Arusha Region of northern Tanzania, since 2011. The school has an enthusiastic mental health club that is trying to slowly reduce the stigma around mental illness in the community.
“There is a stigmatization of people with mental illness because they are regarded as people who cannot bring anything positive to the community. The change is slow. If this kind of education is continued to be given to communities, the stigma can be reduced.”
Despite the slow change in the community, Senara says he saw “huge changes” since the program began at the school.
“I saw an increase in their openness. Many students come to me to express their feelings, where they come from, their background. And also, once they get to the problem — such as panic, anxiety, stress, depression — they come to me and I help them.”
Over the course of the program, he has directed six students to Tengeru Hospital, where workers have received mental health training.
“I feel good to work in this program. It helps students to know themselves, to be aware of mental health, and also to recognize people around their community who need help. The program needs to be continued because the problem will not go away.”