Celebrating success & partnership: supporting mental wellbeing of students in Kenya

Group photo of CBM and BasicNeeds staff working on the mental health project in Kenya.
Author:CBM UK
Posted on: Thursday, 7th October, 2021

As our 2-year project supporting mental health and wellbeing of university students in Kenya comes to a close, we’re celebrating its achievements – particularly innovative adaptations during the Coronavirus pandemic – and our fantastic partnership with Fundació Nous Cims, Basic Needs Basic Rights Kenya and Kenyatta and Chuka universities.

For the past 2 years, CBM and our partners have been improving knowledge, peer support and services for students with or at risk of mental health conditions in Kenya. Research in Kenyan government universities has identified high levels of depression and anxiety among students, especially the many students from poorer backgrounds. Mental health conditions can and do cause students to leave higher education, meaning that they aren’t able to reach their potential. Find out more about this project.

“I never knew there was something called depression, I always thought these feelings were a normal part of life, but it was internally draining me. This mental health programme has really built me because through acting and poetry, I can be a healer and empower someone else…” – Clinton Simiyu

Peer support groups

A huge success of the project is the peer leaders that were trained, to speak out against cyber-bullying, sensitising students to mental health issues, sharing promotional materials and referring students to the Wellness Centres set up. These peer leaders offered vital support to the students within the peer support groups. The need for a support system, especially during the pandemic, proved to be crucial to address challenges and prevent a spike of mental illness cases.

Weekly online webinars have also been instrumental in building knowledge and skills of students and staff, providing psycho-education, increasing the number of mental health advocates at the universities and improving overall wellbeing.

Peer support groups were offered physically and online, which helped improve the availability and accessibility of group psychosocial interventions whilst also tackling stigma and reluctance to try group therapy. The counsellors reported improved treatment-seeking behaviour among students and staff since online sessions begun, such as due to higher confidentiality.

Staff support groups have also been formed at both universities, such as for alcohol and drug abuse, and for people with disabilities. Attendance of these face-to-face and online meetings has increased due to a focus on challenging stigma around mental health in the universities.

Students sat on the grass talking, in an outdoor safe space,

Safe spaces

An importance aspect of the project was creating ‘safe spaces’ for drop-in guidance and support for students. Within periods of lockdown, during the Coronavirus pandemic, the universities had to close and therefore the safe spaces created for students could not be used. However, as soon as the universities were able to reopen, a remarkable number of students and staff have been making use of the amenities for self-care, debrief and group meetings. They have commended its availability and potential to provide a mental health haven in times of mental wellbeing crisis. This shows promising progress on the utility of the safe spaces into the future.

Social media

One highlight of the project was the successful online “Mental Wealthness” campaign to promote understanding of mental health among university students on campus and at home. It ran in November and December 2020 across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter and was particularly popular among students and young people generally. The social media platforms proved to be effective tools for promoting healthy behaviour and wellbeing to large numbers of students.

Facebook is the most popular social media platform in Kenya for both rural and urban youth and the campaign achieved great engagement there. Instagram is more popular among youth in urban areas and we found that more women than men were reached with the campaign messages there. Twitter allowed real-time conversations and was a popular means of interaction between the 24 Mental Wealthness Ambassadors from the universities.

Freshers’ events were also successfully held at both Chuka and Kenyatta universities, with a total of 5,000 students reached. These events increased self-care awareness among students and gave quick tips around mental healthcare.

A forum theatre act by the psychodramatists at Chuka University

Meet some of the mental wealthness ambassadors who have been speaking out about mental health, and the challenges they have faced, and encouraging their fellow students to seek support:

Moses:

 

“The advice that I can give to my fellow youth is to focus on their future, not to remember about the problem that has ever happened in their past. The encouragement that I can give to people with disability in university is that they must first accept themselves.”

Zachariah:

 

 “The advice that I can tell my friends is that never stay with a problem, make sure that you talk with someone, tell someone what you are feeling… it was a taboo before but now people are willing to talk about it, people are willing to open up about their mental health”

Joy:

 

“It’s okay for us to start taking a day at a time… let’s love ourselves and accept ourselves so that we can use any negativity to fuel the transformation of you being a better you.”

Margaret:

 

 “I cope with peer pressure by going to church to avoid going to social places… Those people with disabilities, I can advise them to accept themselves and to make sure not to be misused by others.”

Kevine:

 

“If you have a problem, share with people but the people you’re sharing with, let them be the relevant people who can help you towards solving the problem positively… if you feel that there is an infringement to your rights or you want an issue of your wellbeing getting addressed, go to the relevant authorities…”

Clinton:

 

“I never knew there was something called depression, I always thought these feelings were a normal part of life, but it was internally draining me. This mental health programme has really built me because through acting and poetry, I can be a healer and empower someone else…”

Mental Wealthness Campaign video shoot session with students from Kenyatta University

Innovative adaptations during Covid-19

During the Coronavirus pandemic, we’ve had to navigate around lockdown restrictions and find innovative ways to continue providing mental health supports to students. Embracing online approaches has been key to success.

  • Screening services, including one-on-one therapy sessions with counsellors for both students and staff, were offered via an online tele-counselling platform.
  • Online buddy groups and mental health first aid were run by trained student mental health ambassadors, with supervision from student counsellors. The need for a support system, especially during periods of lockdown, proved to be crucial to address challenges and prevent a spike in mental illness cases.
  • Mental health clubs from Chuka and Kenyatta universities were able to deliver forum theatre activities through Zoom using a ‘radio theatre’ approach with dramatized, audio performances – as well as podcast recordings being introduced.
  • Outdoor “safe spaces”, for drop-in guidance and support, were developed and the students also received Covid-19 relief packages along with mental health services.
  • In September 2020, a weekly webinar series was launched for peer leaders, covering a range of mental health specialties, to provide psycho-education and awareness raising about wellbeing and self-care.

Technology increasing access and availability of psychosocial services has been a big success during the pandemic. Alongside the integration of podcasts, webinars, tele-counselling and online support groups, a new chat bot app has been launched to provide mental health first aid for students. Data from this app will also provide insights into prevalence of disorders in the university population.

Participation in online services, including attendance at counselling and theatre sessions, showed a high interest in learning about mental health and the need for others to speak up about mental health issues.

Art piece exhibit during Fresher's event Kenyatta University

Although this programme has come to an end, mental health support for university students in Kenya will continue through the services put in place, the training of students and staff at Chuka and Kenyatta universities, the increased awareness about mental health and wellbeing and ongoing social media conversations.

The success of this project is due to an amazing partnership with Basic Needs Basic Rights Kenya, Fundació Nous Cims and Kenyatta and Chuka universities – and the enthusiasm, passion and willingness to speak out about mental health from the student ambassadors, who will continue to raise awareness among their peers so that no one feels isolated and alone.

BasicNeeds and CBM staff holding hands.

Images: 1st - Group photo of CBM and BasicNeeds staff working on the mental health project in Kenya. 2nd - Students sat on the grass talking, in an outdoor safe space. 3rd - A forum theatre act by the psychodramatists at Chuka University. 4th - Mental Wealthness Campaign video shoot session with students from Kenyatta University. 5th - Art piece exhibit during Fresher's event Kenyatta University. 6th - BasicNeeds and CBM staff holding hands.



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