Mental Health on Air: How we started a conversation about youth mental health in Malawi and Tanzania

What does it look like when youth discuss depression?

Find out on our three-part documentary – Mental Health on Air: Healthy minds, resilient communities, produced by CBC Ottawa’s Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco.

A frank, open discussion about mental illness and depression is a new phenomenon in Canada, but one that is gaining traction thanks to campaigns like Bell Let’s Talk and Opening Minds. However, in many other places around the world, mental health isn’t just a taboo topic – there simply isn’t the language to talk about anxiety, depression or other mental disorders.

Until a few years ago, there was no word for depression in Chichewa, one of the main languages spoken in Malawi. This made it difficult to talk about depression, a disease that keeps five to seven per cent of youth from participating in school, home life and work. In many countries, mental health issues are overlooked as a health priority, as communicable diseases such as HIV/AIDS and malaria are seen as more pressing challenges. As a result, youth suffering from a mental illness such as depression often have a difficult time knowing what is wrong and where to go to get help, and their friends and family members are left unable to provide support.

In partnership with Dr. Stan Kutcher of, our “Integrated Youth Mental Health” project has started a dialogue around depression and improved mental health services in two countries: Malawi and Tanzania.

Watch part 1 of Mental Health on Air: Healthy minds, resilient communities.

There is no easy way to address mental health. Knowing the words and recognizing the symptoms are an important first step. After discussions with health and government officials, the term “matenda okhumudwa” (disease of disappointment) has been adopted to refer to “depression” in Malawi.

Equipped with this new term, teachers, peer educators, doctors and other primary healthcare workers received training from Dr. Stan Kutcher, so that youth suffering from mental illness could be identified and could receive care.

Teachers and health care providers jumped at the opportunity to receive this training, immediately recognizing its importance. “We are saying we are building the youth to be the next leaders. So, if we have youth who are mentally ill, who are stressed, how do we have good leaders?” asked Lucious Zimba, a teacher at Lilongwe Girls Secondary School, Malawi.

Meet more of the mental health champions we have trained through this project.

Training, however, is not enough. To address the issue of stigma, we developed a participatory radio program, featuring hip hop beats, a radio drama, and celebrity interviews. In Malawi, popular hip hop artist Dickie Shumba, known locally as The Diktator, hosts the radio show Nkhawa Njee – Yonse Bo (Depression Free, Life is Cool) on MBC Radio 2 with producer Joy Nathu. In Tanzania, DJs Goodluck Kissanga and Haazu Hamis Abtway host Positive Mood on Radio 5. Students listen at school and in youth clubs, where they can discuss the issues they hear on the radio with teachers and their peers.

See the impact of this radio show, and the project as a whole, in the second clip of Mental Health on Air.

Joy Nathu, host of Nkhawa Njee – Yonse Bo has seen the impact of his radio show. “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 more and may open up a few more doors in terms of depression.”

Our youth mental health project has had an incredible impact since its debut three years ago. More than 3,000 youth have approached their teachers with concerns about mental health and more than 1,000 have been treated for depression.

We have:

    • · reached more than 500,000 youth with an entertaining radio show that discusses mental health alongside hip hop beats, a radio drama and celebrity interviews.
    • · trained more than 400 teachers to lead mental health clubs and integrate mental health into their classroom teaching.
    • · trained more than 200 primary care workers to identify, diagnose and treat mental illness.

Challenges remain in addressing youth mental health in Malawi and Tanzania. Access to services is difficult for those living in rural communities, access to medication is difficult for those living in poverty, and funding for services, care and awareness campaigns is always a challenge. Learn more in part 3 of Mental Health on Air: Healthy minds, resilient communities.

The “Integrated Youth Mental Health” project, funded by Grand Challenges Canada, concluded in December 2015. An extension will help this project transition so that it may, one day, be sustainable. This work is important to ensure the next generation of leaders have access to the care necessary to be strong, health leaders.

Hear from some of the mental health champions we met through this project:

youth Sauda Abdalah

Sauda Abdalah has never missed an episode of Positive Mood. “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.”

Shehesom Shebsom

Shehesom Shebsom, a clinical officer at Mt. Meru Regional Hospital in northern Tanzania, says medical staff greatly benefited from the training they received. “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.”

Ester Mshana

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.

She knows her students have been forever changed by this project. “Students are aware of their mental health and how to overcome stress and problems at home. When they listen to Positive Mood, 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.”

Learn more about the project and its impact:

Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco
About the authors  
Omar Dabaghi-Pacheco is a broadcaster with CBC Ottawa. He travelled to Malawi and Tanzania as a volunteer for Farm Radio International to document the impact of our “Integrated Youth Mental Health” project.


Kaylee Maddison
Kaylee Maddison is spending her summer interning with Farm Radio Trust in Malawi, documenting their mental health and agricultural projects. She is a recent graduate of Carleton University’s Bachelor of Journalism program. Kaylee has also previously been to Rwanda where she studied the country’s media landscape.


Kayla Wemp
Kayla Wemp is is a recent graduate of Carleton University’s Bachelor of Journalism program. She is spending her summer interning with Farm Radio International in Tanzania, working on telling stories from their mental health program and various agricultural projects.

Want to learn more?

Get our latest news and stories.


  1. Hassan Sheriff on May 1, 2016 at 5:24 am

    I am Hassan Sheriff the production manager of Kamboi Agriculture radio in Kenema,Sierra Leone,please i wants Farm Radio to send me all audio copies of the on air programs for mental health,farming and climate for an extension broadcast here in Sierra Leone.

  2. Farm Radio International on July 29, 2016 at 8:45 am

    Hi Hasssan,

    I trust you received our email with information on how to become an FRI broadcasting partner? If not, or if you have any questions, please contact us at

    Thank you!

  3. Iregi Mwenja on August 9, 2016 at 11:47 am

    I have watched episode 2 of your Mental Health on Air documentary and I was very impressed by the innovative approach used to sensitize young people on mental health. Mental health is rarely discussed in the open in Africa, and as noted in Malawi (Chichewa), local ethnic communities do not even have names for common conditions like depression, anxiety, etc.

    I would love to see what lessons and experiences gained from this project can be replicated here in Kenya. I do not believe in reinventing the wheel. Whatever worked for our southern neighbors can work for us too.

    I am the Founder/CEO of Psychiatric Disability Organization, a grassroots organization based in Nakuru, central region of Kenya. For more about PDO: Facebook:

    That is a great job you did with those young people in Tanzania and Malawi. I am waiting to hear from you. I hope that we can replicate that success here in Kenya.

    Many thanks,



Get our latest news and stories.