Four citizen-led campaigns promoting mental health awareness in Africa and India

Aisha Bubah, a Nigerian psychologist, listens attentively to a client during a counseling session. Photo provided by Aisha Bubah, used with permission.

By Ebenezar Wikina

On October 10, the international community observed World Mental Health Day to highlight the importance of mental wellness to general wellbeing. The theme of this year’s observance, “Mental health is a universal human right,” aimed to improve knowledge, raise awareness and drive actions that promote and protect everyone’s mental health as a universal human right.

According to a 2021 World Health Organization report, one in four people will experience mental or neurological disorders at some point in their lives. The report also showed that around 450 million people currently live with such conditions, making mental disorders among the leading causes of ill health and disability worldwide.

Over the past year, four citizen-led digital campaigns have gained momentum in Nigeria, Kenya, South Africa, and India, as they seek to provide mental health care for all citizens. Here are the stories behind the citizens leading them.

Aisha Bubah: Mainstreaming mental health in Nigeria’s primary healthcare system

Aisha Bubah, a 31-year-old psychologist from Nigeria's northern region, is a shining example of resilience. Despite the harrowing impact of the Boko Haram terrorist insurgency on her mental health as she has had to witness the impact of the insurgency on her home state, she has emerged stronger and founded the Idimma Initiative to empower and educate her community on the importance of mental wellbeing.

Bubah’s campaign is calling on the National Primary Healthcare Development Agency (NPHCDA) to train primary healthcare workers as lay counsellors, set up mental health desks in all primary healthcare centers (PHCs), and build the capacity of medical doctors and nurses in PHCs to provide mental health services.

With over 30,000 PHCs in Nigeria, Bubah’s request builds upon the Mental Health Act passed by former President Muhammadu Buhari in January 2023. This Act provides a legal framework for the protection and promotion of mental health in Nigeria, including the provision of mental health services at the primary healthcare level.

John Mwangi: Protecting the rights of patients in mental health facilities in Kenya

John Mwangi, based in Nakuru, is a 30-year-old monitoring and evaluation specialist in social development who works with civil society organisations in Kenya. He was treated without dignity when he was admitted as a patient at a mental health facility in Kenya, and this terrible personal experience inspired his campaign to end human rights abuse at mental health institutions.

“I was thrown in dark solitary confinement, whipped, sedated, stripped naked, neglected, verbally abused, and locked up in a flea-infested space,” Mwangi told Global Voices in an email interview. He added:

If you think I’m referring to how animals are treated, you’re wrong. This is how I, a human being, was treated in the psychiatric ward of a mental health facility where I was admitted. They denied me a bed to sleep on, neither did they inform me of my diagnosis. I was made to feel unworthy of dignity and respect. Ironically, the place I had gone to seek care and healing ended up adding to my trauma.

Through a petition, Mwangi is seeking the attention of the cabinet secretary of the Ministry of Health to intervene and ensure sensitization training on patients’ rights for all staff in mental health facilities.

Molebogeng Tema: Psychological evaluation in South Africa’s police recruitment

Tema Molebogeng, 24, is currently working as a library assistant and tutor. She is fighting to ensure that the recruitment process of the South African Police Service (SAPS) is reviewed to ensure that police officers are within the correct mental state to carry firearms. Her campaign is calling on the Minister of Police to implement psychological evaluations as part of the SAPS recruitment process.

In an email interview with Global Voices, Molebogeng said:

Growing up in a community where most of our parents were members of the South African Police Service, I had a first-hand experience of how the power that comes with holding a gun has eventually corrupted officers to hurt.

Since the Black Lives Matter movement the issue of “killer cops” has gained wider attention in many African countries including Nigeria and Kenya. Molebogeng’s campaign, when successful, will not only sanitise the police service in South Africa but will also save many lives.

Bhavana Srirangam: Mental health support systems for Indian women

Bhavana Srirangam is a 24-year-old psychologist and social worker, living in Telangana, south-central India. Her mother walked out of 27 years of an abusive marriage. “I am taking my self-respect back,” her mother told Global Voices in an interview. For almost three decades, her mother cried for help, and demanded justice from family and the judicial system, but she was always asked to “adjust, because men put food on the table.”

According to a report by the Times of India, depression and anxiety in women is twice as common as in men and affects 25 per cent of women. Two-thirds of married women in India experience domestic violence, which makes them more likely to develop mental disorders.

Srirangam’s campaign is asking the Women Development & Child Welfare Department in Telangana, to create mental health support systems for women, like her mother, who had the courage to walk out of abusive households. Srirangam believes that mental health support plays a crucial role in rebuilding resilience in women.

Although divided by geography, Aisha Bubah, John Mwangi, Tema Molebogeng, and Bhavana Srirangam are bound by their power and commitment as change leaders with Nguvu Collective. Nguvu Collective (“The Power Collective” in Swahili) works with new leaders from marginalised communities to make them stronger both socially and personally, so they can make a big, positive difference in society.

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