CREATE-ing space to discuss mental health in Kenya

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On Saturday, March 10, students and young professionals (SYPs) participated in the 5th Annual CCGHR Student Global Health Forum on the theme of “Research to Reality” at McMaster University. A mix of keynotes, workshops, global health simulation and this year’s unique graduate student panel guided the day’s learning and insights. Throughout, SYPs built off of each other’s questions, insights and enthusiasm, and offered each other a space for critical reflection and collective inspiration. To showcase some of the unique ways in which some of our SYPs experienced this year’s forum, we’re sharing this second reflective piece in the series.

By Stephanie Huff

This academic year, I joined the CCGHR Student Chapter on Western University Campus as a student member and graduate student mentor. Through this student club, I had the opportunity to present at the 2018 CCGHR student forum at McMaster University and network with other like-minded students.

The initiative my colleague and I presented about relates to the burden of global mental illness, which is pervasive and highly complex, particularly in Kenya and other low-income countries.

This global problem led to the launch of the ‘Global MINDS Fellowship Program’ (GMFP): a transnational, interdisciplinary fellowship program at Western University, aimed to radically disrupt global mental health issues through community mobilization and innovation.

Reducing stigma

Through this fellowship, I attended a summer institute in Kenya in 2017, where I was assigned to a team of 3 Kenyan and 2 Canadian students. We were delegated a complex challenge to solve: to reduce stigma in the local community and advocate for enhanced awareness of mental health.

Research Team_UWO

In Machakos, a rural district 60 km outside of Nairobi, stigma and the social exclusion of people with mental illness is particularly severe. We quickly realized that in order to propose a solution that would actually be relevant to the local community, we would need to hone in on the expertise and knowledge of those impacted most by stigma and social exclusion: people with mental illness in Machakos.

We partnered with an innovative non-profit organization called CREATE, which aims to provide people living with mental illness opportunities for employment and psychosocial support. In 2015, CREATE opened a printing shop in Machakos called ‘Point Tech Solutions’, which initially employed 7 people with mental illness. Several of the employees had since taken on the role of peer advocate and activist, providing support, mentorship and education surrounding mental illness to others in their community.

Through interviewing Point Tech’s staff, we positioned ourselves as humble learners, gaining knowledge from their experiences and insights into the barriers and potential facilitators to our challenge. From the information gathered, it became apparent that the process of sharing one’s experience with others was crucial to individuals’ relapse recovery.

Furthermore, I realized that in sharing one’s story, individuals were not only able to better integrate their experience of illness into their own life narratives, but were simultaneously increasing awareness through educating others.

Advocating with personal narratives

Our proposed solution, the ‘advocacy incubator’, was therefore conceptualized and chosen as a solution based on the power of the personal narrative, as reflected through our engagement with people with mental illness.

Ultimately the incubator goals were to provide a safe place for individuals with mental illness to collaborate on advocacy initiatives to raise awareness and reduce stigma, to share ideas and narratives, and to eventually recruit even more advocates in the community. We aimed for the incubator to eventually become self-sustaining, run by and for individuals with mental illness.

Now nearly one year later, our team has initiated program evaluation and increased our focus on dissemination through sharing our story at conferences, such as the CCGHR student forum. I have really taken away from our participants that one of the strongest modes of advocacy is sharing one’s personal narrative.

From my perspective, I believe that my experiences with this project and in participating in the CCGHR student forum and club taught me valuable lessons pertaining to global health work. I learned the value of allyship and collaboration, and to honor the experiences and diverse knowledge of communities.

I came to understand that advocacy is not a top-down concept.

In viewing our community partners as experts of their own realities, our team was able to propose a solution that was both relevant and meaningful to those involved. I also understood the link between knowledge generation and action, realizing the importance of community mobilization and stakeholder involvement to catalyze meaningful and impactful social change.

I will incorporate these lessons in my own doctoral global health research this year and look forward to sharing it with the CCGHR in the future.

Stephanie Huff is pursuing her PhD in Occupational Science from Western University. Her doctoral research explores gender equity as a social determinant of women’s health using critical, feminist theoretical underpinnings in rural Tanzania.