Destigmatize mental health, advocates send clarion call

Such conversations push the country closer to normalizing and destigmatizing mental health.

An E-poster with details of the mental health awareness conversation. PHOTO/AMWIK.
An E-poster with details of the mental health awareness conversation. PHOTO/AMWIK.
  • Poor mental health can immensely lower productivity in the workplace.
  • Some of the triggers of mental health are tied to workplace stressors.
  • Positive psychology helps us build and align ourselves to positive mindsets, making it easy to battle most triggers.
  • Hugging, speaking up, holding hands, hydration, and a balanced diet is essential in maintaining mental wellness.

We need to normalize mental health issues, making it clear that it happens, even to the best of us

Chebet Birir

Research indicates that one out of every four people in Kenya seeking healthcare has (or is at risk of having) a mental health issue. 

It’s also paramount to point out that work-related constraints have amplified mental health issues such as stress, depression, anxiety, and other common and uncommon mental health complications.

Striking a balance between mental wellness and work has been a tall order for many, with scores experiencing mental illnesses triggered by what’s happening around their professional circles.

It’s common knowledge that poor mental health can immensely lower productivity at the workplace and needs to be handled at the onset.

A conversation

It’s against this backdrop that on May 20, 2023, the Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK) hosted a mental health awareness talk to scrutinize the matter and shed light on mental health issues and concerns, the need for the provision of mental health support and resources, and the mitigation measures we all need to take to shield ourselves from this threat.

In her introductory remarks, Patience Nyange, AMWIK Executive Director, drew an image of Kenya’s mental health situation today, disclosing that in the media industry and other industries and workspaces, myriad experiences constantly threaten to throw staff off-balance psychologically.

In today’s era of technology, trolling and cyberbullying have compounded other lingering menaces such as gender discrimination, limited growth space for professionals, and imbalanced work situations, among others, all at the scene of inadequate mental support and resources.

This endangers the workplace and society at large.

A lived experience

The guest panelist, Chebet Birir, a Mental Health Advocate, Multimedia Journalist, and Media and Communications Manager, shared her story of a lived mental health complication—Postpartum Psychosis and Depression.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, this “is a reversible—but severe—mental health condition that affects people after they give birth. This condition is rare, but it’s also dangerous.”

Her first experience of it was in 2017. 

Chebet Birir, a Mental Health Advocate who experienced Post Partum Depression and Psychosis twice. PHOTO/Courtesy.
Chebet Birir, a Mental Health Advocate who experienced Postpartum Psychosis and Depression twice. PHOTO/Courtesy.

She says it was more about navigating the experience of being a new mother. 

“During my first experience, people around me did not know what I was going through,” Ms. Birir remembers.

The confusion made her not take care of herself or the baby. 

With the support from her family, she was eventually treated and her health restored, though it took about two years to get back to normalcy.

In good health, she set out on a journey “to help people learn about the condition and prevent it, saving lives, for there are many mothers who experience it but neither know what they are going through nor how to get out of it,” she says.

Ms. Birir warns that before labeling women battling such mental conditions, people should first dig through the pile, unearth, and understand the cause.

“The trigger for my second episode in 2020 was work,” she recounts, explaining that she was still on the journey of self-realization in the corporate world, and it was a struggle to break through some of the impediments.

She creates awareness by sharing her story in conversations around mental health; she is also writing a book and simultaneously figuring out an idea to start an organization and escalate the mental wellness conversation.

“I also connect people to counsellors whenever they reach out for help, and walk with them through the journey,” she says.

Smelling the coffee

Though many people have been through mental turmoil, there has been a lot of jargon around the whole idea, and noting the red flags early enough has always been challenging.

Anxiety, irrational fear and paranoia were some of the early indicators for Ms. Birir. 

A change in behavior and feeling uninterested in previously-interesting things also suggests that something is going asunder, and one should seek help.

Withdrawal is another indicator where people seclude themselves and avoid company. 

“You have racing thoughts, link one thought to another and it’s technically the mind playing tricks on you. Though it’s not real, it feels real to the one experiencing it,” Sharon Mbugua, the panel’s moderator, commented about anxiety disorder.

Ms. Mbugua is a podcaster, mental health advocate, and Global International Bureau of Epilepsy Council Advisor.

Destigmatization

By sharing their stories, people would help create a destigmatized environment and enable society to understand that mental illness is a sickness like any other.

Sharon Mbugua, a podcaster, mental health advocate and the conversation's moderator. PHOTO/Courtesy.
Sharon Mbugua, a podcaster, mental health advocate and the conversation’s moderator. PHOTO/Courtesy.

“We need to normalize mental health issues, making it clear that it happens, even to the best of us,” Ms. Birir says.

At the workplace                                     

The participants also unwrapped some of the work-related experiences that trigger mental complications.

“It takes a lot of energy and effort to change how things are at the workplace,” explained Ms. Birir, advising the participants to instead network with people interested in mutual growth.

Commenting about the workplace situation, Ms. Nyange pointed out the possibility of women being obsessed with being liked, which, if mishandled, can trigger low self-esteem and psychological complications. 

With the virtual conversation being planned by AMWIK, it majorly focused on women’s mental health. 

She clarified that it proves profitable not to expect to be liked but instead focus on delivering on your duties, whether those around you adore or loathe you.

“Our likability is a concept we must deconstruct as women, because we cannot be liked by everybody, just the same way we cannot like everybody,” commented Ms. Nyange.

Patience Nyange, Executive Director,
Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK). PHOTO/Courtesy.
Patience Nyange, Executive Director, Association of Media Women in Kenya (AMWIK). PHOTO/Courtesy.

She added that it sometimes shows people are dealing with their problems and are simply venting through you.

Lilian Chepng’etich, one of the participants, remarked that she thrives where she’s not liked! 

She can spend the time she would have taken up irrelevant conversations and deliver on what’s required of her.

Unanswered questions and craving for validation and affirmation are challenges many girls face up to adulthood, primarily due to bad parenting, according to Pauline Njuraita, one of the participants. 

Handling workplace triggers

“Focus on self-love, self-affirmation and self-care. Focus on You, shape yourself to your best version and strangers will go out of their way to like and support you. Who likes you is who matters most,” she urged.

Turning to psychology, Wangari Kabiru, an innovations specialist and a Gen Z and Alpha Character Strengths character coach (PPAK-ACC Level 1), unveiled the tie-in between positive psychology and mental health.  

Positive psychology is pegged on acquiring forward-looking traits, patterns, behaviors, and experiences for use as one’s strengths for their advantage. 

The traits include an appreciation of beauty and excellence, self-regulation, fairness, forgiveness, humility, humor, leadership, love, and many others, 24 in number, and are transferrable.

“There is evidence of reduction in stress, depression and anxiety and enhancement in wellbeing for both children and adults when people judge themselves based on positive psychology,” she explained.

In mental health, embracing positive psychology enables us navigate through life and express the traits we find lacking around us. 

Tackling psychological instability

“Be intentional about who you live or interact with. Ensure they have your best interest at heart and won’t judge you or call you names,” Ms. Birir advises, adding that such people will notice the oddity and help.

She also urged people to confidently seek medication. “Just say what you feel, and you’ll find someone to help you,” she implored.

According to her, counseling is an excellent starting point. Counselors can refer those suffering to psychiatrists.

“When you start feeling not okay, as you were before, find someone you’re comfortable with and open up to them for help. You also need to stay in a positive environment, take care of your mind and expose yourself to positive messaging,” adds Ms. Mbugua.

When ignorable things are triggering the issues, “Give your work your best and ignore the rest,” comments Pamela Mburia, a participant.

Ms. Nyange lamented the toxic state in the media industry, especially for women. Instead of spending their energy commenting on others’ negatives, she urged the participants to deliberately see the positives in them.

In her input, Hellen Mesi highlighted the need for everyone, including children, to understand the basics of mental health, recognize the red flags and seek help. 

So is the need for a healthy upbringing, which is the cornerstone of mental wellness.

“We should start having mental health conversations, even with our children, raising their self-esteem to grow appreciating their importance and self-love and avoid seeking validation elsewhere,” she commented.

Taking walks, getting rides, workouts, touching base with old friends, being around family, and seeking external help is as essential.

Ms. Njuraita adds that hugging (for over 30 seconds), holding the person’s hand, playing with a pet, meditating, and allowing children and those needing help to fully express themselves without pre-empting or judging them are additional strategies to combating mental health.

The moderator, Ms. Mbugua, stressed the need to create safe spaces for people, especially young people, to share their issues freely.

Acknowledging that there’s still a lot of ignorance around mental health and related issues, she accentuated the need for more conversations on mental wellness and offering support to one another. 

“Our society is also not quite aware of how to respond when someone speaks out regarding what they are experiencing. Sensitization, advocacy, and awareness are essential. 

Sometimes it’s better to remain silent than say something negative to someone going through mental health-related issues,” commented Martin Magu, a participant.

Underscoring the need for spirituality, Ms. Birir says that, over time, she has realized, “If you’re not spiritually okay, it is very difficult to be mentally okay.”

Place of government

Ms. Birir says that the government should implement the many available policies on mental health.

“The biggest gap on the mental health situation in the country is on the part of the government. Many promises have been made, but it’s still hard to access mental health equipment, talk about mental health without stigma, yet the big chunk of the responsibility goes to the government,” Ms. Birir pointed out. 

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She urged the government to implement the pending policies and projects.

Such conversations around mental health are expected to continue, courtesy of AMWIK. 

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Mr. Makau holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Linguistics, Media & Communication from Moi University, Kenya. He is a Columnist and Editor with Scholar Media Africa, with a keen interest in Education, Health, Climate Change, and Literature. His contact: b.makau@scholarmedia.africa.

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