Year 2 student Jonathan Wanjogu Kibe shares the inspiration, activation and impact of a week-long campaign to raise awareness of mental health issues on campus.
In Africa, the subject of mental health is generally frowned upon – or even seen as taboo. In many countries and communities it is considered a spiritual problem – yet most of the time it is caused by trauma or chemical imbalances in the brain.
This mindset has penetrated the echelons of leadership such that in most of the underdeveloped and developing nations in the world, less than 1% of the healthcare budget is dedicated to mental health. This can only be corrected through mass education. Every single person has a mind which they need to take care of – and what better place to start these conversations than among the next generation of African leaders?
Since childhood, I have seen and experienced the overwhelming indifference – the opposite of love – that exists in the world. I was in the US when the Charlottesville attack occurred, when a white supremacist protest turned nasty as marchers clashed with counter-demonstrators. I witnessed the fear and terror in the eyes of my African-American host family, despite the attack being miles away from where we were.
This was the tipping point. I was determined to do something that would promote love and tolerance between individuals when I got back to the African continent. It wasn’t just to inspire racial tolerance, but also to shed light and love in areas where it was lacking.
This is how #theLOVEproject came about. I had a name, but absolutely no cause or plan of action to begin.
When I returned to campus, I spoke to my friends Chimfeka and Timi about the disturbing levels of indifference in the world. We resolved to think of ways to create this awareness within our immediate community, at African Leadership Academy.
As the term became more demanding, I saw how many students’ dispositions dropped. Some students were falling sick*; many students were not yet coping well with the stress and it was taking a toll on them.
I felt we could do better!
Breaking the Silence
Having had my own encounter with mental health, I knew this was our time to act and have students, staffulty and workers break the silence surrounding the issue. This would also act as a pilot project for #theLOVEproject and measure its feasibility in undertaking future campaigns on different topics.
The purpose of the Suicide and Mental Health Awareness Week, which ran from October 30 to November 3, was to raise awareness of the fact that there are individuals within the ALA community who struggle with mental illnesses and disorders such as depression, ADHD, dyslexia, addictions and anxiety, among others.
These individuals may not be inclined to speak of their conditions due to existing stigmas – especially on the African continent, where many communities have demonized mental illnesses and made them taboo. This week was a time to convey that these individuals should feel loved and cared for, and not shy from seeking help.
‘Mental health is not merely a state that is achieved; it is to be maintained.’
The secondary objective of this campaign was also to have the whole community focus on their mental health. We aimed to pass across the fact that much like physical health, mental health is not merely a state that is achieved; it is to be maintained. Many of us maintain our physical health in various ways, such as by eating a balanced diet and doing physical activities. In the same way, none of us can afford to neglect our mental health, regardless of whether we suffer from mental health illnesses or not. We aimed to have individuals critically consider their individual mental health needs on a regular basis.
The week was full of activities that aimed to create conversation around this topic. It started on the Monday with a video depicting suicide, as a curtain raiser for the week ahead. We had talented volunteers who, throughout the week, used henna to write messages on people’s arms that would be a reminder of the campaign’s purpose.
Words and phrases such as ‘Help’ and ‘Dare to Ask’, and the semicolon (;), a worldwide symbol for suicide awareness, were popular. Posters placed around the campus strengthened the message.
We encouraged students and staffulty to put up sticky notes and write messages with their thoughts on mental health, on whiteboards that had prompts. This was how we introduced conversations within the community and stirred individual views on the matter.
We also had a ‘Blankets & Convos’ session on the quad, with a number of games and activities aimed at normalizing conversations around mental health.
During the Year 2 Wellness Class, a couple of friends and I piloted a lesson plan on Mental Health we had designed that constituted mostly of an experiential and a group reflection on the lessons from the activity. This was highly effective and engaging in passing across key messages on asking and offering help when faced with mental health issues. It also tackled a number of commonly-accepted misconceptions.
‘Asking for help from the right sources is a show of strength,
as it is much easier to stay mum.’
We wrapped up the week with another video (scripted, shot and edited by Chimfeka and Timi) that was succinct but powerful, and focused on the main message of the campaign: that help is real, and available. It showed the various structures put up in ALA and beyond to support us when our journey gets strenuous. We also hoped to fight the notion that asking for help is equivalent to weakness. Asking for help from the right sources is a show of strength, as it is much easier to stay mum. And as importantly, there is no right time to ask for help; the time is now.
I believe there are a number of untold stories in the community on how individuals have been directly or indirectly impacted by mental health challenges. A few members of the community approached me to share their stories, and how the campaign impacted positively on them. There was also an increase in the number of students seeking help from the Wellness department.
I hope to use the lessons learnt to run awareness campaigns around other taboo topics and marginalized groups so as to keep spreading the love.
Long live #theLOVEproject!
ABOUT Jonathan Kibe
Jonathan Wanjogu Kibe is a Year Two student from Kenya who was a Student Life & Wellness Representative on the Student Government when he launched #theLOVEproject, a personal initiative he hopes to continue with beyond ALA.
*ALA works hard to mitigate the demands and rigor of its program with extensive Health and Wellness resources as well as a Pastoral Care program built around health and safety.